Time Out with Nick Cohen

Poets and novelists have often tried to describe happiness. Andrew Oswald has found a way of countin

I quickly learned that it was pointless to invite Andrew Oswald to engage in fanciful speculation. He is an economist to his bones, who believes in what he can count - and little else. I saw him at Warwick University, and it felt fitting that he should have found a professorship in a monument to the modernism of the mid-1960s. Warwick's blocks show only straight lines; no place here for the decorative. In Oswald's bright, white office there are few individual touches and no unnecessary clutter. Oswald is at home: a numbers man in a suit and tie with nothing to distract him from his calculations.

Yet this meticulous academic, cooped up in a machine for learning, has released a shockingly hippie version of economics into his dry discipline. When Labour's female politicians worry that the party will lose the next election if it doesn't think about the strains on families, when Iain Duncan Smith talks about the importance of marriage and David Cameron says it is time we looked at general well-being as well as gross domestic product index, they are unconsciously passing on ideas that Oswald developed in the early 1990s.

Novelists, poets and psychologists have always thought about happiness. Oswald has found a way of counting it. And this miserabilist approach, this calculus of contentment whose utilitarianism seems against all the spontaneity we associate with happiness, may be a great intellectual breakthrough, precisely because it translates feelings into figures.

If the political interest and the sales of popular "happiness economics" books are a guide, Oswald has provided a tool that will change the way people think, as his once sceptical colleagues are beginning to realise.

"I just have to click on the internet now, and every week there are new papers on happiness written by people I've never met, never heard of," he says. "It has reached some take-off point, so that if someone were to tell me that economists had taken a random sample of 10,000 Koreans and asked them about happiness and mental health, I could bet you that marriage will come through with the same positive coefficient in Korea as in France and the United States. Edu cation will be as important there as here, and the Koreans' happiness will follow a U-shape through life, with a greater chance of unhappiness in people's thirties, just as it does in every country. Human beings are very similar. We're uncovering something deep about them."

Oswald speaks without bravado. He is too good-natured to brag, even though he has every right to be pleased with himself. His is the classic story of the independent-minded researcher with a new idea, who finally forces his indifferent colleagues to take notice.

He is the son of an academic family - his father taught psychiatry at Edinburgh University - whose intellectual life was determined by the crisis of the early 1970s. "I was very committed in my youth to improving the world. I remember sitting on a train reading in the Guardian about stagflation when I was very young, and thinking: 'Yes, I'm going to work on this. I'm going to solve this problem.'" At the time, the decisive response came from Milton Friedman and the free-market right. One aspect of Friedman's work, which was more of an assumption than a detailed argument, profoundly unsettled Oswald and stayed with him for years. In common with most other economists, Friedman supposed that people were rational. In his work on unemployment that was to win him the Nobel Prize, he took it for granted that inflation made sensible people choose unemployment over work - they simply calculated that more leisure compensated for the loss of income, and went on the dole.

The idea that joblessness was voluntary was incredibly useful for Conservatives presiding over the mass unemployment of the 1980s. Norman Tebbit told the 1981 Conservative party conference: "I grew up in the 1930s with an unemployed father. He did not riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept on looking until he had found it." By implication, the unemployed who didn't get on their bikes wanted to stay at home and riot, and nothing could be done for them.

Disproportionate misery

Oswald thought Friedman and his acolytes were talking nonsense, but how to prove it? His conceptual breakthrough was to use the statistical technique of regression analysis to isolate and measure the happiness and misery of people's lives. Put simply, regression analysis involves assigning values to variables. For instance, suppose you are asked how happy you are on a scale of one to ten and you say "five". The next year your pay doubles from £20,000 to £40,000 and you say you now feel at "six". If you are fired a year later and your happiness falls to two, the price a statistician can assign to your unhappiness is huge: £80,000. As Oswald and his colleagues found when they did slightly more sophisticated calculations than mine, the effect of unemployment is irrational, out of all proportion to the actual loss of income. People weren't sitting on the dole coolly weighing the benefits of more spare time against loss of wages. They were wracked by a disproportionate misery.

As with unemployment, so with marriage, divorce, being placed under an airport flight path . . . any event or pheno menon that can impact for good or ill. Nor was it hard to find raw data. Most governments in the rich world produced vast surveys of their citizens' contentment. Oswald and his colleagues ran them though their equations and began to churn out figures. A good marriage was far more important than the liberal-minded imagined, they found. Getting married brought happiness equivalent to additional income of £70,000 per year. Good health was hugely important, as might be expected. Widowhood brought a degree of unhappiness that would take, on average, an extra £170,000 per annum to offset. Maybe that was not too surprising. But many of their results were unexpected. Long-distance commuting was like unemployment, for instance, and imposed far more stress than outsiders realised.

As Oswald went through his figures, I made the romantic objection that he was trying to monetise the human condition: to turn its joy and despair into pounds and pence.

Many others have said that to him. And although he tried to take my objection to pricing seriously, it clearly baffled him. "It may be because of my training that monetary units come to mind, but they don't have to. I could say that having your partner die is the same as being unemployed for 17 years. But that would be even stranger than saying a marriage is worth £70,000 in happiness terms. I'm not making a moral judgement about money. I just need to get some units."

Growing prosperity

His colleagues were worried not by the vulgarity of his work, but by the fact of his doing it at all. Economists didn't ask people how they felt, because they weren't concerned with happiness. It took Oswald five years to get a paper published by the American Economic Review, the world's most respected economics journal. The editors sent it back for revision seven times, and, Oswald suspects, published him only when other economists began to replicate his results.

There was a second reason for their suspicion. Oswald was not the first economist to look at happiness. In 1974, Richard Easterlin, a California economist, had examined studies that asked Americans how happy they were and found not a shred of evidence that America's growing prosperity had made Americans happier since 1945. His colleagues dismissed or ignored his work at the time, and a dispirited Easterlin gave up. Everyone knew that the business of governments was to increase national wealth. An oddball's insistence that the effort was futile was not something economists and politicians wanted to hear. Oswald helped rescue Easterlin's reputation, and today "Easterlin's paradox" is a vital issue for the social sciences - the vital issue, according to Oswald.

He thinks there is no way out of it. Once you have removed the fear of famine and thirst and provided security and shelter, increases in the gross domestic product have no effect on contentment, because man is a social animal who compares himself with other members of the species. Oswald's favourite cartoon encapsulates his point. It shows an employee bellowing at his boss: "I was so happy when you gave me a pay rise, then you spoiled it by giving one to everyone else."

"There's only so much rank in society to go around," he explains. "We can look at a society in 1900 and there's just this amount of rank, and look at it now and there's the same amount of rank. The way to happiness is to lower our aspirations and concentrate on our relationships."

If the work that Oswald and now hundreds of other economists are producing sounds warmly green and co-operative, it can be like that, but there is no necessity that happiness economics and vaguely leftish sentiments will always march in step. It still makes sense for individuals to seek status and reward, even though if everyone in their group does it, most are likely to end up forlorn. Equally, happiness economics has all the philosophical flaws of utilitarianism. If the Serb residents of a Balkan town say that they would be far happier if the police put the Muslim minority in a concentration camp, the utilitarian who believes in the greatest happiness of the greatest number has no way of objecting to the outrage.

The American economist Paul Krugman pointed out that happiness economics might lead you to advocate government policies that slow down the rat race, impose high taxes on the wealthy, and grant generous benefits, long holidays and short working weeks to everyone else. France has all of these policies, and its unemployment rate is more than twice as high as America's as a result. As happiness economists say that unemployment is a great social evil, which hits people with disproportionate force, conservatives could argue back that their market policies bring greater happiness.

As I thought about the objections, I felt the temptation to shrug my shoulders and conclude that all that the happiness economists have done is to recast the old arguments between left and right without settling them. But that isn't fair. New ways of thinking produce new results. If the government goes ahead with the planned expansion of airports, protesters will now be able to put an exact figure on how much distress living under a flight path will cause - just as those who object to new commuter towns will be able to say that regular long-distance travel is a good route to mental distress.

In the past, economists counted growth figures and household incomes and assumed that if they went up, society's contentment went up with them. Professor Oswald and his colleagues have blown that idea out of the water and forced them to look elsewhere. We are ruled by statistics; by changing what is counted, Oswald is also changing what will count.

Nick Cohen is an author, columnist and signatory of the Euston Manifesto. As well as writing for the New Statesman he contributes to the Observer and other publications including the New Humanist. His books include Pretty Straight Guys – a history of Britain under Tony Blair.

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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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