IPS Blog

Happiness May Be More Meaningful Measure of Inequality

World Happiness Report, 2016.

World Happiness Report, 2016.

For a country with a population the size of Wisconsin’s, Denmark has figured surprisingly prominently in the U.S. presidential election debates.

In the very first Democratic debate last October, Bernie Sanders ignited a national debate over the tiny Scandinavian country’s economic model by saying we could “learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.”

In February, Denmark made U.S. political headlines again when Ted Cruz warned that if we elect Donald Trump, we would be liable to wake up one morning to find that the president had “nuked Denmark.”

Cruz didn’t elaborate on why he thought Denmark would be a particularly likely Trump target for nuclear destruction. Perhaps it’s because those Danes are just so darn happy.

According to UN World Happiness rankings released this week, Denmark comes in first, up from their third place showing in 2015. The United States ranks #13. At the bottom: Greece.

How do these folks measure happiness? The rankings are based largely on six factors:

  • GDP per capita
  • healthy years of life expectancy
  • social support (“If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on to help you whenever you need them, or not?”),
  • trust (as measured by a perceived absence of corruption in government and business),
  • freedom to make life decisions (“Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with your freedom to choose what you do with your life?”),
  • and generosity (as measured by recent donations).

The authors argue this broader measure of well-being is a more meaningful way to analyze inequality than income and wealth indicators. They find that people are happier in societies where there is less inequality of happiness.

Happiness might not necessarily be a good thing, though—that is if you’re Donald Trump and you’re running for president. Yahoo Finance recently ranked all 50 U.S. states according to an “anger index.” Trump is cleaning up in the angry ones, with a 91 percent win rate in states among the 20 angriest that have held primaries.

Happier voters aren’t going so much for the blustery tycoon. Trump has won just 4 of 11 primaries (36 percent) that have been held so far in the 20 least-angry states.

So happy Danes, beware.

Do Populist Candidates Appeal to Affluent Voters?

(Chart: 24/7 Wall Street, Federal Reserve data)

(Chart: 24/7 Wall Street, Federal Reserve data)

The 2016 presidential primary elections — now essentially halfway over — have placed income and wealth inequality right at the forefront of America’s political discourse.

The entire Bernie Sander platform rips the gains of America’s rich at the expense of low- and moderate-income people and advocates for comprehensive economic reforms that aim to narrow the nation’s vast economic divides. And billionaire Donald Trump, in his stab at a populist pitch, regularly blasts the impact of globalization on average American workers.

Mainstream media analysts have generally categorized white working class voters as Sanders and Trump supporters. Neither candidate, the conventional punditry suggests, would seem to have an appeal to more affluent voters.

But this assessment, our new analysis of voting patterns indicates, may not be accurate.

We looked at voting results from the most affluent county in each of the 2016 primary states where we now have data. Candidates traditionally pay considerable attention to counties like these since voter turnout, the research shows, strongly correlates with household family income.

These most affluent counties all have higher household incomes than the national median. Residents in the wealthiest among them — Virginia’s Loudon County — have more than double the income of the nation’s typical household. The full list:

How do the presidential candidates fare in these higher-income counties? Using CNN exit polling, we’ve tabulated results from the Republican and Democratic contests for most of the states where primary voting has taken place. No county data exists for the Minnesota and Maine caucuses, and Kansas and Alaska offer congressional district instead of county voting breakdowns.

On the Republican side, Donald Trump took most of these most affluent counties.

Republican Candidate        Victories
Donald Trump (12) Beaufort County, SC; Blaine County, ID; Madison County, MS; St. Johns County, FL; Shelby County, AL; St. Charles County, MO; Livingston County, MI; Honolulu County, HI; Rockingham County, NH; Kendall County, IL; Nantucket, MA; Forsyth, GA
Ted Cruz (6) Canadian County, OK; Wake County, NC; Ascension Parish, LA; Elko County, NV; Oldham County, KY; Rockwall, TX
John Kasich (2) Chittenden County, VT; Delaware County, OH
Marco Rubio – campaign suspended (4) Williamson County, TN; Benton County, AR; Dallas County, IA; Loudoun County, VA

On the Democratic side, we see a much closer race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

Democratic Candidate        Victories
Hillary Clinton (13) Benton County, AR; Beaufort County, SC; Madison County, MS; St. Johns County, FL; Shelby County AL; Dallas County, IA; Rockwall County, TX; Williamson County, TN; Delaware County, OH; Loudoun County, VA; Wake County, NC; Ascension Parish, LA; Forsyth County, GA
Bernie Sanders (10) Chittenden County, VT; Sarpy County NE; St. Charles County, MO; Elko County, NV; Livingston County, MI; Rockingham County, NH; Kendall County, IL; Nantucket County, MA; Douglas County, CO; Canadian County, OK

Sanders scored electoral success with affluent voters in geographic areas as diverse as Nevada, Michigan, and Massachusetts. His anti-economic inequality message has resonated with a diverse array of voters. In Michigan, CNN exit polling shows, Sanders actually tied Clinton with voters earning over $100,000 and won the state’s highest-income county.

Donald Trump’s strong showing in the wealthy suburbs also suggests that his voter base goes beyond the working-class base that the standard media narrative so emphasizes. Trump’s message, riddled with anti-immigrant and offensive language, has found an audience with wealthy voters from Nantucket County in Massachusetts to Honolulu County in Hawaii.

What can we take from these results? On the one hand, the results suggest that a broad coalition of Americans — including many Americans of wealth and privilege — stands ready to support a pro-worker and pro-equality economic agenda that will uplift all Americans.

On the other hand, the results also suggest that ethnic and racial insensitivity and worse runs all the way up America’s economic ladder.

Another CEO Pads His Own Pockets While Cutting Worker Pensions

(Photo: Pixaby)

(Photo: Pixaby)

Governors and mayors around the country have been putting forth proposals to cut government worker pensions. They call these pensions “unaffordable.” So far federal employees have avoided this onslaught. But that’s changing. The Tennessee Valley Authority’s board has just approved a modified version of a cutback proposal offered by TVA CEO William Johnson.

TVA’s board, the New York Times reports, approved a plan on March 3 that would shift federal workers out of a secure defined benefit pension plan — that would provide a guaranteed monthly check for the rest of their lives following retirement — into a 401(k) plan that would have  employees bearing the risk of falling investment markets. The plan would sharply lower the TVA’s pension costs, but deny employees benefits they had earned.

The Tennessee Valley Authority once symbolized the shining successes of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. TVA brought electricity and economic development throughout Tennessee and to parts of Kentucky, Alabama, and Mississippi, some of the poorest parts of the nation’s south.

TVA better symbolizes today the excesses of Corporate America. TVA CEO Johnson pulled down $6.4 million in 2015 personal compensation. Earning 16 times more than President Obama, William Johnson may be the nation’s highest-paid federal employee.

But the real stunner comes from CEO Johnson’s retirement assets. In less than three years on the job working for TVA, William Johnson has accumulated $3,567,489 in his company pension account, according to TVA’s 10-K report filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Johnson also had an additional $305,994 in his TVA deferred compensation account, a special account for corporate executives that, unlike 401(k) plans for workers, has no limits on the amount of compensation that can be set-aside tax-free each year.

This combined $3,873,483 in Johnson’s workplace retirement savings, if invested today in an annuity, would deliver CEO Johnson a check for $23,318 each month from age 65 until the time of his death. And Johnson’s pension will grow with each additional year he serves the TVA.

There are lots of CEOs in the private sector who as members of the “I’ve Got Mine Club” don’t think twice about padding their own pockets as they cut workers job and retirement security. But we should expect more from the leader of such an important federal agency.