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Bush has a way of making us happy



Published: Fri, January 21, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



By MARGARET CARLSON

LOS ANGELES TIMES

Money, we're reminded by recent studies, can't buy happiness. In fact, on Jan. 14, the Los Angeles Times reported on a study of 800 affluent households that concluded that the unrich should thank their lucky stars.

More than half the families said wealth didn't bring more happiness, and fully one-third said money caused more problems than it solved. In a new book, "Happiness: Lessons From a New Science," economist Lord Richard Layard seems to agree, writing that the leaps in income in Western countries since the 1950s -- all those cars, jacuzzis and Caribbean vacations -- haven't moved the contentment needle even an inch. If true, this is great news for a country about to run out of cash.

But based on a survey of one, I have to disagree. On the evenings when I call Yellow Cab rather than wait for the No. 32 bus, I'm more cheerful. If I had a driver in a climate-controlled car waiting at the curb whenever I had someplace to go, I'd be happier still. How many of these apparently downcast rich people would like to go back to public transportation? My contrary opinion notwithstanding, these studies provide a rationale for our president's policies. With President Bush having just raised his hand to take the oath of office again, we are the proud owners of a $7.5 trillion national debt. That's sure to keep our grandchildren giddy with joy as they go broke trying to pay it back.

Kennedy inaugural dictum

Bush has persuaded Americans to heed the Kennedy inaugural dictum and ask not what their government can do for them. People no longer expect government to solve the problems that really matter, such as jobs and health. Thus Bush can get away with let-them-eat-platitudes politics. Luckily for him, those are free. It doesn't cost a dime to pursue a constitutional amendment against gay marriage. In Ohio, it even won votes from the chronically unemployed.

If money really causes more problems than it solves, Bush's second term will provide even greater happiness to the middle class and something approaching euphoria for the poor.

His top priorities are "reform" of the tax code by shifting more rewards to capital over wages, and "reform" of Social Security by reducing benefits to the old and infirm.

On the latter, FDR was apparently clueless. He thought that a steady, guaranteed income in one's sunset years would make Americans happy. Foolish man.

Bush knows better. He knows that a guaranteed income would cause more problems than it would solve.

That's why he's pushing for a crapshoot in which the young get to take money out of the system and play the market (and I suppose make Wall Street unhappy with all those new brokerage commissions) and make up the shortfall by increasing the debt through borrowing (see giddy grandchildren above).

If you want to know what these studies really reflect, it's not so much that money doesn't increase happiness but that the rich become so entitled to happiness that there can never be enough apartments, jets or personal valets. Ask Donald Trump. And even for the rest of us, peer envy can curtail the happiness more money should bring. We don't compare ourselves with Bill Gates, but with the guy in the next cubicle who bought a Lexus with a raise bigger than ours.

Minimum wage

In all the recent studies, there is one that suggests money does have an effect. In a poll in its Jan. 17 issue, Time magazine found a big leap in happiness when a person passed the $35,000 income level. If that's true, the single thing Bush could do to create the most happiness in the United States would be to raise the minimum wage. But he's fiercely opposed to that.

What Bush has said he would do if he could is pass a law to make people love each other. What a shame he can't. According to a Dartmouth College study, increasing sex from once a month to once a week brings as much happiness as a $50,000 raise.

This week in Washington, money trumped power, the usual coin of the realm, as people flaunted their diamonds, their gowns and their connections at a week of lavish parties. They may have looked ecstatic but, helped by these studies, I can now see through their false bonhomie.

On Tuesday night, their purring limos gridlocked the city as it took my No. 32 bus two hours to go 10 blocks. It somehow comforted me to realize that the celebrants whisking along were, in truth, no happier than I was as I slowly made my way home. There are times when I, like the president, find these studies useful.

X Carlson is a contributing editor of Time magazine and a paneliston CNN's "The Capital Gang."




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