Republicans Need a 'Happiness Index'

Don’t worry, be happy.

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By Mary Kate Cary, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

The tension that springs up when some Republicans are asked about the tea party movement is fascinating. They want the tea partyers' energy...but not their anger. They'd like tea partyers to run for office against Democrats...but not as spoilers in Republican primaries. Some conservatives fear that if they support the partyers' anti-establishment populism, the media will lump them all together as uneducated yahoos. Even conservative columnist David Brooks recently sniffed at the tea partyers, whom he said are not part of the "educated class" in America, as an "amateurish movement with mediocre leadership."

There's a reason why the press mocks tea partyers: Tea partyers believe that the mainstream media have joined big government and Wall Street to form one big, bloated nanny state, with massive regulation, high taxes, unlimited spending, and deficits as far as the eye can see—and plenty of favoritism, bailouts, earmarks, and ethics complaints to go around. The tea partyers didn't like the $787 billion stimulus plan, the AIG bonuses, or what seems likely to pass as healthcare reform. Neither do many independents.

And then this week, along came Scott Brown and the voters of Massachusetts. Here's what Brown said the night he took away the Democrats' lock on a 60-vote majority in the Senate: "What I've heard again and again on the campaign trail, is that our political leaders have grown aloof from the people, impatient with dissent, and comfortable in the back room making deals. And we can do better." Then he said how the Republican Party can do better: "Across this country, we are united by basic convictions that need only to be clearly stated to win a majority."

As Republicans define their governing philosophy in the Obama era beyond simply being "the party of no"—and as they try to create a relationship with the tea party movement and independents, as Brown so successfully did—they would do well to clearly state those "basic convictions" he referred to, by going back to the words of the Declaration of Independence, to our God-given rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Republicans are already known as the pro-life party, so having consistent policies that defend the sanctity of life at all levels is an easy one for the GOP, especially because research shows that more and more Americans—including a lot of pro-choice voters—want to make it harder to get an abortion.

Traditionally, the GOP has placed liberty at the center of government policy. Republicans side with the individual against the monolith of government and support freedoms of speech and religion, equal rights, and free markets and free trade. Tea partyers have shone a spotlight on the massive expansion of the state, and its creeping control of our personal lives and our pocketbooks, as a threat to our liberty.

So life and liberty are no-brainers. That leaves happiness. But how to define it? These days, happiness is more than just a job at a higher income—hence what Brookings Institution poverty researcher Carol Graham calls "the paradox of happy peasants and frustrated millionaires." And although one analyst after another has declared that the recession is over, jobs continue to disappear, unemployment remains high, and no one is very happy. Christina Romer, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, told CNN that she's looking for gross domestic product growth and lower unemployment by spring. But there's a growing sense those may no longer be effective yardsticks for measuring economic well-being.

Last fall, French President Nicolas Sarkozy suggested that world leaders move beyond traditional economic measures such as GDP in considering their citizens' happiness. Recent studies, including one that covered more than 100 countries, measure factors that contribute to a feeling of well-being, such as the local standard of living, levels of education, and crime rates. This allows economists to look at global economic well-being based on quantifiable numbers. Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman says that this information broadens the kind of advice world leaders are getting for policymaking beyond feel-good polls asking manipulative questions.

Here's the GOP's opportunity: Remember the "misery index"? That's the jobless rate plus inflation. Ronald Reagan used it to devastating effect against Jimmy Carter. Republicans should adopt a similar tool: the "happiness index." It would allow the party to broaden its appeal beyond stopping healthcare reform and killing cap-and-trade.

Research shows that people who say they are the happiest share some traits. They're married, they have higher incomes, they are the parents of young children, and they go to church every week, for example. Michael Barone, a former U.S. News columnist, has pointed out there is a correlation between lifestyle choices and economic performance. "Almost no one who graduates from high school, gets married and stays married, and gets a job, falls into poverty. Many who do not do these things do." He points to conservative policies on the state level in the 1990s—for example, tough-on-crime policing pioneered by Mayor Rudy Giuliani in New York City that lowered the crime rate and welfare reform led by Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson that put more people to work—that support those lifestyle choices and economic growth. Other Republican reforms, such as allowing school vouchers in poor neighborhoods, could raise the education level of many Americans (and future employees), and increasing the federal tax deduction for children could help parents of young children.

By focusing on such basic convictions as "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," Republicans can draw support from independents and tea partyers who are interested in limited-government policies that build economic well-being, improve our quality of life, and bring stability and security to citizens. Wouldn't that make everyone happy?

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