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    Will Seattle's parks initiative make us happier?

    A crew of locals evaluated the happiness potential of Proposition 1. Here's what they found.

    On August 5th, Seattle voters will decide on Proposition One, a measure that would change how we fund and maintain our city park system. Until now, voters have been asked to approve levies for our parks every six years – a cause they have consistently supported. Proposition One would replace the levy system with a new Metropolitan Parks Board composed of city councilmembers. That board would have the power to raise property taxes to a maximum of $75 per $100,000 dollars of home valuation, an increase of perhaps $150 per year for an average family — or, to put it in different terms, the cost of about a latte per week. 

    Proponents say the money would allow expansion of the park system, especially to underserved neighborhoods, and a chance to make up the city’s $278 million backlog of park maintenance needs. The City Council would oversee the Metro Park system. So far, the arguments seem to boil down to “This will mean more parks!” (Yes) or “You can’t trust the city council not to sell the system out to developers!” (No).

    But what if we evaluated a proposal like this as they do in Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan country known for its commitment to “Gross National Happiness” rather than Gross Domestic Product? Bhutan’s 24-member Gross National Happiness Commission evaluates policy ideas using a 26-question screening tool based on nine domains of life found by scientists to correlate highly with happiness.  The domains include:

    • Material wellbeing  (equity, security, sufficiency, etc.)
    • Health (clean air, water, diet, exercise…)
    • Mental health (purpose, connection, manageable stress…)
    • Community Vitality (social connection and support…)
    • Education (access, quality, results…)
    • Arts, Culture and Recreation (access, quality…)
    • Time Balance (leisure, work-time, stress…)
    • Government (participation, transparency, corruption…)
    • Environment (air, water quality, access to nature…)

    A scale of one to four is used to answer the questions:

    1. Likely to make things worse in the domain…
    2. Don’t know the results....
    3. Won’t make things worse; may make them better..
    4. Will make things better in the domain…

    The final score must average 3 or above for the Gross National Happiness Commission to recommend approval by Bhutan’s parliament.

    Four years ago, Karma Tshiteem, Bhutan’s Commissioner of Happiness (a cabinet-level post), visited Seattle, where he explained to a Green Festival audience that Bhutan had decided not to join the World Trade Organization after the proposal scored, on average, less than two. 

    I have used an abbreviated version of the tool — only ten questions — in workshops with several U.S. communities to show how such a tool might improve political discussion in the U.S. and reduce political polarization.

    In Columbia, South Carolina, we discussed a proposal to publicly fund a professional baseball stadium. It failed the test, but not by much. In Muncie, Indiana, the proposal was for free higher education; it barely passed.

    In Burlington, Vermont, the proposal was to ban fracking for natural gas. I took a vote of the group before the discussion — it was a unanimous Yes. But using the process, the proposal to ban fracking barely failed, leading to a new proposal to ban new fracking and phase out existing practices over time so as not to suddenly increase unemployment, a definite cause of unhappiness. 

    The Vermont participants were surprised to see the kinds of disagreements they had. I pointed out that all gave the measure a 1 (the lowest score) for Material Wellbeing, believing it would reduce jobs, but a 4 (the highest) for environment.  In our current fracking dialogue, jobs vs. environment makes up the entire debate and things become totally polarized. Assessing several other domains led to a far more nuanced conversation, one where liberals and conservatives could actually find some common ground. 

    The groups I worked with believed such discussions would improve decision-making, not only in government, but in businesses and non-profits. A journalism professor at Indiana’s Ball State University also suggested that reporters and newspapers use such a tool to evaluate policy proposals.

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    Posted Wed, Jul 30, 7:26 a.m. Inappropriate

    You know what would make me happy? Being taxed less so I can work less and spend more time with my kids. But yes, we have so much to learn from a nation run by a monarchy with a per capita income of $2,420.

    Poverty, after all, is much more photogenic.


    Posted Wed, Jul 30, 7:49 a.m. Inappropriate

    By the way, the Bhutan scale is a classic example of how g*d d*amn out of touch college educated, upper middle class white liberals are with the day to day problems of working class families in this country.


    Posted Wed, Jul 30, 7:54 a.m. Inappropriate

    This is a very useful tool - a "happiness" study. However, like any study, its value depends more on the questions than the answers. In fact, as pointed out by Graaf, in the Burlington case reading the questions brought up more discussions and issues that hadn't been understood across the table.

    Another way to look at it is this: in the sample set of questions at the top of the article, there's only one that deals directly with the economy. Let's say that question wasn't asked. Then there would be no way to relate the economic effect to a score. Alternatively, let's say there were three questions related to economy. That might be enough to make economy the driving factor in the score. So, choosing the right questions is important.

    I think I fall in the "distruct the council" group. It was interesting to see that Graff rated that question with a 2 but still came up with a high score for the overall set. I wonder if he used the exact set of questions printed in this article.


    Posted Wed, Jul 30, 7:56 a.m. Inappropriate

    "This month, at the Phinney Neighborhood Center, I facilitated while seven people used the tool to discuss the proposal. I split them into three groups "

    Was this a Portlandia skit?


    Posted Wed, Jul 30, 8:40 a.m. Inappropriate

    "resultant health, recreation, time balance, community and environmental benefits." I have to wonder where those increases will come from when I will be working even more than I do now (full time) to pay for it? I am definitely in the distrust the council group. They have a terrible track record on spending in ways that I think are important; for example stadia, Bertha, Brenda, palatial city hall and offices buildings, Carrasco's rich salary, the highly paid consultants that amount to political patronage jobs...you get the idea.

    I am quite sure that this is about building the new waterfront park as a nice front yard for the condos to come, as well as to remove the pesky voices of the taxpayers from all decision making so that the council members can tend to their future employers' wants and needs. I voted NO the day the ballot came and it went out in the next day's mail.

    I do agree with pragmatic that, as with statistics, the questions asked and how they are interpreted are important considerations when rating the utility of results from this model.


    Posted Thu, Jul 31, 12:46 p.m. Inappropriate

    My sentiments-exactly!

    Posted Thu, Jul 31, 1:09 p.m. Inappropriate

    Yes mspat I imagine the condo owners and tourists will feel 'happy' in their new disney-esque waterfront park. The rest of us are already fairly disturbed by the last 20 years of 'improvements' and don't go there anymore.

    Posted Thu, Jul 31, 10:14 p.m. Inappropriate

    I could not agree more! You know who will be happier? I am sure the exploding homeless population in Seattle will love it as they no longer only get drunk and cause problems in downtown parks. They will now enjoy all of the improvements to the parks on Beacon and the CD as well. Yes they will see those increases in "time balance" while the rest of us are working to pay for it and we will avoid the parks on our days off because its hard to explain to a 3 year old how to avoid the needles on the way down the slide. Its backyard only for mine.


    Posted Wed, Jul 30, 11:13 a.m. Inappropriate

    It isn't the questions, but how people are biased in their answers to them... If a bunch of people are afraid that the City Council will sell off Parks, we have a problem. Prop 1 doesn't propose to sell off or transfer ownership of any Parks facilities or properties. And if future City Councils want to do such things -- which they could propose right now without an MPD -- they would have to go through a transparent, public process to do so -- just like they would have to do right now without an MPD.


    Posted Thu, Jul 31, 1:02 p.m. Inappropriate

    incorrect... they do not have to go thru any public process.... they are not a city entity.... they are given power and authority by the state to do anything that in their minds is of benefit to the parks system or brings in revenue for the Parks. There are NO binding rules attached to how they operate or make decisions.... read RC@ 35.61.130... it is right there in black and white.

    Posted Thu, Jul 31, 8:21 a.m. Inappropriate

    Very interesting analysis. I wonder how the more negative group would have rated the initiative if they new that the City Council will not have any additional authority to sell parks. In fact, the Park District will own no Seattle parks and the. Council ordinance that is a companion to the ballot initiatives makes it clear that the City Charter and City law will continue to govern how parks are managed. Initiative 42, adopted by the Council two decades ago does not allow for the sell of parkland, period. Nothing changes. While you're correct that their is a trust issue, there is also an integrity issue with the opponents of Prop 1. They continue to misstate the tax impact and the assertion that Prop 1 could result in "our parks being privatized or sold." Would you trust the opponents to influence your vote when they continue to misstate such crucial facts?


    Posted Thu, Jul 31, 10:35 a.m. Inappropriate

    I am sorry Simon, that you find my story so easy to dismiss, but it would be helpful at least to get your facts straight while doing so. Bhutan is not run by a monarchy, but is a parliamentary democracy with greater public participation than our own, and while it is still very poor, per capita income is nearly double the figure you state. But that aside, why is it that you think we have nothing to learn from others, even if they are poor? Why the arrogance that underlies your comments? We have much to learn from many people and countries regardless of their incomes, and Bhutan's happiness scale and policy tool have been attracting worldwide attention. Far from being irrelevant to the American working class' day to day problems, the Bhutan scale addresses the fact that deprivation is not merely monetary, and that the "working class" also suffers from many other issues--poor health, overwork, lack of connection, environmental pollution, lack of government accountability, depression, anxiety, less access to education, etc. These are precisely the deprivations that Bhutan also considers and measures. Paying less taxes is not the key to working less--indeed all the countries where people work the fewest hours (and are also the happiest) are high-tax countries--the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, etc. Higher taxes provide many services and amenities at far lower cost than does the market, thus allowing people to cut back on work. Here, the Dutch Working Hours Adjustment Act is instructive. It has allowed the Dutch to work the shortest hours in the world while ranking # in children's wellbeing and in parental and female life satisfaction. Cutting taxes is not the way to shorten work. And as for splitting seven people into three groups, it is a technique that allows each more time to express themselves before coming back into the larger group. I find it very useful. But I'm sure these explanations will not satisfy you since your response is merly one of smug dismissal. I hope you will give a bit more thought to future responses to article.

    Sincerely, John de Graaf

    Posted Thu, Jul 31, 10:51 a.m. Inappropriate

    sorry, missed a number. I meant to say that the Netherlands ranks #1 in children's wellbeing, parental and female satisfaction.

    Posted Thu, Jul 31, 1:22 p.m. Inappropriate

    So, John, am I reading this correctly? 2/3 of those participants did not feel they would be happier if Prop 1 passed?

    Posted Thu, Jul 31, 4:41 p.m. Inappropriate

    four out of seven were opposed initially. I'm not certain what the feelings were after the final discussion.

    Posted Sun, Aug 3, 3:15 p.m. Inappropriate

    How on earth could you divide 7 people into 3 groups? And just what does a total of 7 people prove? Ye gods, this whole thing is ridiculous.


    Posted Mon, Aug 4, 3:07 p.m. Inappropriate

    This seems a promising way for looking at things and understanding underlying issues. As others have mentioned the very small group size you used reduces the significance of the outcome.

    One other problem is in how one frames or limits the alternatives.

    For instance an alternative MPD with an independent Board of Directors and perhaps a lower taxing limit might score very well, better than proposition 1 or the levy system.


    Posted Mon, Aug 4, 4:48 p.m. Inappropriate

    so the question would be "happier than x, y, or z?"

    Posted Thu, Sep 4, 6:02 a.m. Inappropriate

    Gross National Happiness: a bad idea whose time has gone

    Raising a standard against happiness is never going to be popular, but here goes.

    The mountain kingdom of Bhutan has got a lot of mileage out of its practice, first adopted in 1972, of using a broad “Gross National Happiness” (GNH) measure of its people’s welfare rather than a narrow measure like income.

    According to the many people who have fallen in love with the idea – the UN went as far as declaring March 20 the “International Day Of Happiness” – a holistic approach to welfare reflects more accurately the many dimensions of wellbeing in the human condition. The philosophy has been urged upon rich and developing economies alike as the proper goal of government policy.

    Unfortunately for its international enthusiasts, its originators are losing faith. Tshering Tobgay, elected with a thumping majority last year in only the country’s second parliamentary election, has distanced his government from the concept. “If the government of the day were to spend a disproportionate amount of time talking about GNH rather than delivering basic services, then it is a distraction,” he said. “Rather than talking about happiness, we want to work on reducing the obstacles to happiness”. His campaign promised more practical advances including a motorised rototiller for every village and a utility vehicle for each district.

    This is a welcome development for two reasons. One, Bhutan’s GNH, defined from the top by an autocratic monarch, was a deeply illiberal means of legitimising undemocratic rule and failed utterly to prevent grotesque abuses of human rights. Two, it has distracted from much more constructive and democratic ideas of running countries in the interests of their citizens’ wider wellbeing.

    Mr Tobgay’s disillusionment underlines the obvious problems with trying simultaneously to hit a bunch of vaguely-defined targets (for which see also the Millennium Development Goals and their successors) – but even more so of allowing authorities to decree what they consider the happiness of their citizens to be.

    The GNH is assessed by asking survey respondents about a variety of indicators, from more conventional issues like health and education to more nebulous concepts like emotional fulfilment and perceived national ecological sustainability. It is noticeable that the haziest ones seem to do better: the highest-scoring indicator is “Values”, denoting that Bhutanese tend to concur that murder, stealing, lying, creating disharmony in relationships and sexual misconduct are a bad thing. Good for them, but, on the other hand, less than half of respondents are happy with their literacy, employment opportunities, government services and schooling.

    Such outcomes are hardly surprising: the autocratic monarchy that ruled Bhutan until the first free elections in 2008 substantially failed to deliver better lives for most of its duration. Literacy is still only around 50 per cent, and only around half of children attend secondary school. Most Bhutanese are still subsistence or other small-scale farmers, unemployment is rife and suicide rates are alarmingly high. Corruption in government is believed to be widespread.

    Moreover, GNH has proved no guarantee of individual human rights. Taking it at face value, you would never know that Bhutan has for decades been carrying out a brutal ethnic cleansing policy against the country’s Nepali-speaking minority. Once around a sixth of the population, a “Bhutanisation” campaign that began in the 1980s resulted in tens of thousands of Nepalis being expelled from the country. Their houses were seized or burned down and people deported for speaking Nepali, refusing to eat beef (Nepalis are generally Hindu while ethnic Bhutanese are Buddhist) or declining to wear traditional dress. The displaced are still living in refugee camps in Nepal, or have been resettled in the US or elsewhere: none has been allowed to return.

    GNH defines and imposes a unitary set of values that does not protect diversity or individual rights, or at least addresses them only in ways that can be defined and controlled by the government. It is a communitarian view of the world distinctly reminiscent of Hu Jintao’s ideal of a “harmonious society”, a concept frequently cited by the Chinese government when clamping down on free speech and dissent. It should give GNH’s foreign supporters a long pause for thought that as soon as Bhutanese voters had a choice after decades of dictatorship, they threw out its backers and brought in its critics.

    The international attention given to GNH is doubly irritating because it has managed to distract attention away from more transparent and participative attempts to measure wellbeing, coordinated among others by the OECD. Several governments have made serious attempts to work out what makes their citizens happy by the novel procedure of asking them, not defining it on their behalf.

    The best way of finding out what makes people happy is watching what they do, or what they spend their money on. It’s notable, for example, that the perennial surveys of the world’s most liveable cities, which always seem to end up recommending Copenhagen and scorning London, are generally at odds with where internationally mobile people actually choose to live. The criteria of the survey’s designers are evidently not the same as those of real people actually making decisions.

    Of course, not every expression of wellbeing can be judged or delivered by the free market. Services like universal healthcare do not function well in the private sector, and there are negative growth externalities like pollution, noise and traffic which require a wider measure of welfare. Still, the guiding principle is that concepts of wellbeing need to be expressed through the market where possibly and democratic choice where necessary, not imposed by technocrats – and particularly not used by autocratic governments to suppress individual choice.

    As for the future of GNH in Bhutan, Mr Tobgay seems to have exactly the right idea. He wants the king (now happily reduced to the role of a constitutional monarch) to proselytise for it in an abstract way, much as Queen Elizabeth II is sent abroad to chunter vaguely about Britain’s enduring values while the UK government gets on with running the country according to what its voters want.

    Poor farmers need more motorised rototillers to work their land and fewer autocratic monarchs commanding them to be happy in a manner decreed by the state. Measures of wellbeing need to be debated and tested rather than dreamt up and imposed. Bhutan’s “Gross National Happiness” has attracted praise from gullible foreigners, but at home it has acted as a cover for serious failures of governance and severe abuses of human rights. Its demotion is entirely to be welcomed.


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