Thursday, May 23, 2024

#144 / Adversarial Collaboration


In 2010, Professor Daniel Kahneman and the Princeton economist Angus Deaton (both of them Nobel Prize winners) published a highly influential essay. They found, on average, that higher-income groups show higher levels of happiness. 

So, is it true, then, that money really does buy happiness? I suspect that this seems pretty obvious to many of us, but things aren't exactly simple, at least according to Kahneman and Deaton. As explained in a recent "Guest Essay," published in The New York Times on April 3, 2024, money only "buys happiness" up to a point: 

Beyond a threshold at or below $90,000, Professor Kahneman and Professor Deaton found there is no further progress in average happiness as income increases.

The "Guest Essay" from which I am quoting is by Cass R. Sunstein, a professor at Harvard Law School, and previously head of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under President Obama. After validating the statement that money does "buy happiness, but only up to a point," Sunstein goes on to disclose that this assertion by Kahneman and Deaton has been challenged:
Eleven years later, Matthew Killingsworth, a senior fellow at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, found exactly the opposite: People with higher income reported higher levels of average happiness. Period. The more money people have, the happier they are likely to be.

As fascinating as this topic is, the object of Sunstein's "Guest Essay" is not, in fact, to discuss, or resolve, the "Does Money Buy Happiness?" question. It turns out, after the Kahneman-Deaton study was countered by Killingsworth, that Kahneman approached Killingsworth, asking him to work together with Kahneman on future research: 

Professor Kahneman, well into his 80s, asked Dr. Killingsworth to collaborate, with the help of a friendly arbiter, Prof. Barbara Mellers, an influential and widely admired psychologist. Their task was to look closely at Dr. Killingsworth’s data to see whether he had analyzed it properly and to understand what, if anything, had been missed by Professor Kahneman and Professor Deaton.

Kahneman, who died on March 27, 2024, turns out to have been a believer in what he called “adversarial collaboration.” He believed that when people who disagree work together to test a hypothesis, they are involved in a common endeavor. They are trying not to win but to figure out what’s true. They might even become friends.

Sunstein, who is no stranger to "politics," wants us to consider the possibility that the principle espoused by Kahneman in his academic work is also applicable in our political life. He goes so far as to claim that our Constitution contemplates this kind of collaborative, but adversarial, relationship as the foundtion of our system of government. 

I invite you to read Sunstein's essay, and to see if you are convinced. The principle of "adversarial collaboration" is premised on the idea that "both sides" need to be more dedicated to finding "the truth," than to "winning," and to getting "their way."

That means that all involved have to admit they don't already know, at least with any certainty, who is "right," and who is "wrong," and what the actual "truth" may be.

Do you think we could do politics that way? If Sunstein is correct (though he doesn't say this explicitly), we had better be able to do that, or our ability to live together, amidst our differences, will prove to be impossible.  

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