Tuesday, December 31, 2013

What’s another year?

What does one do during the last day of the year? The unemotional simply goes on with the usual. Goes to work, pretends it’s a day like any other. The emotional will think back and ‘live’ again the moments of happiness and sorrow he/she has known during the last 364 days. It’s all about feelings for him/her. The desperate will hope for a better year to come as he/she only recalls moments of loss, despair, and sorrow. The ‘deep thinker’ will probably think again about the meaning of life and why we are here and wouldn’t it be better if we weren’t? The pessimist will see another step closer to his/her grave. And the optimist will feel obliged to the spiritual leader of his/her religion, or, if an atheist, to his/her good fortune for staying alive and healthy and enjoying the works of God and Man surrounding him/her. So, like in most questions, there’s many ways to ‘skin a cat’. Which one of those do I choose? I reckon, a bit of everything. Like most of us do, really, unless we are obsessively stubborn and think we are the only ones being right, and all the rest plainly being wrong.

I read this on BBC news this morning. Some people sharing their ideas about what has been their ‘number’ of the past year. Interesting, sort of, pastime lecture for those with nothing better to do this last and final day of 2013. Among those defending their choice of a number, there was this dude, David Spiegelhalter his name (sounds kinda German to me), of Cambridge University, who touched base on an item that has been debated over and over, a gazillion times in the past. ‘How happy did you feel, yesterday?’ Some good stats here and there, nice to know, like the Danes being the happiest people around (probably most of them have obscure vision deficiencies, or are used to ‘look too deep into their glass’, as we colloquially say in Belgium for those with a conspicuous preference to alcoholic beverages). Near the end of his explanatory arguments good ol’ David came up with a populist subject matter though: Bulgarians seem to be the ‘unhappiest’ Europeans, he said, with an average score of 5.5. So, he says, if busloads of Bulgarians left their country on January 1st, tomorrow that is, to enter Britain of all places, then the average happiness of both countries would fall (mind you, David had told us earlier that Britts score 7.3 on the happiness scale! Yes sir, 7.3 was his choice of number of the year.). Here’s what he writes:

«Those smug Danes said 8.4 even in spite of the gloomy crime dramas they watch, while Bulgarians said 5.5, the lowest in the European Union. That means that if the happiest Bulgarians come to the UK the average happiness in both countries would go down.»

Curious as I am, I wanted to dig deeper in the argument and see whether Mr. Spiegelhalter got his math right. And, what made him come up with a sentence like this in the first place. The first memory neurons that fired in my skull at the reading of this statement were those of a ‘classic’ anecdote, when the New Zealand PM said some time ago, at the occasion of emigration of the poorest classes from his country into neighbouring Australia, that the average IQ of both countries would ‘increase’ as a result. What the PM indirectly suggested was that you got to be a poor and stupid bastard to leave New Zealand for Australia, and that Australians are definitely much stupider than even the stupidest among New Zealanders. This makes sense. Subtract a chunk off the left of the NZ IQ Bell-curve distribution and the average moves to the right. Or, in the case of Australia, add a chunk to the right of the Aussie IQ Bell curve and the average moves to the right again. The fact of the matter is that the chunk that left New Zealand, in the opinion of a cunning PM, belonged in the left half of the NZ Bell curve and the right half of the Aussie. I thought the PM response was stated in an extremely funny way without hurting too many national feelings. Maggie Thatcher was quite good in similar catch phrases too... Like her infamous, "I love Germany so much that I would have preferred to still have two of them around...", when talking to Gorby about Germany's reunification in the 80ies.

David’s statement however is all over the map. There maybe scarce cases when his statement could be mathematically correct, but in most other cases I could think of it's all dead wrong. For this simple reason. IQ is typically constant and could theoretically change, but quite slowly, over a long time, if at all. You are born with your IQ! Whereas, happiness is a state of mind. One moment you are ecstatically happy, another moment you want to cut your veins. Like, one moment you hear you won five million in lottery, next moment you get a call from your best friend telling you he's off to South Africa with your girl friend that you are insanely in love with. Or more like that. Happiness can change in a heartbeat. IQ stays put!

If I were in Cambridge myself, I’d probably attempt a scientific and systematic proof of my claim. That David is wrong and that his argument might have been inspired, voluntarily or not, by a... sorry to say, rather ‘racist’ and ‘populist’ spirit. Or simply by lightheadedness or stupidity (he might be an Aussie after all). Take for example this. A 5.5 Bulgarian entering the UK jumps towards 8-9 points in the happiness scale because of the immigration fact alone, feeling good about the future and that he escaped a miserable life in the Balkans for good. In that case, the alien ‘chunk’ entering the UK will have a higher average than all those moaning Britts, who nevertheless think their welfare state is worth less than the Kingdom's of Denmark... Also, when an average Britt finds out from his Bulgarian neighbour how bad things were back in Bulgaria, he might even feel a lot better about his/her life in Britain instead. It might even move his average up from 7.3! Who knows? So, the average UK happiness will have to go up, not down! OK, David?

Of course, British xenophobes will initially get unhappier, influenced by their tabloids, who have been campaigning for some time now about the implications of an imminent Balkan immigration as of January 1st. This negative campaigning is not only happening in Britain. People are being terrified in this country too, to the point that Van Rompuy, the EU President, came to a TV chat-show yesterday to claim that this whole negative campaign was simply baloney. 

How about Bulgaria itself then? While David claims it will make them more unhappy, it might most probably raise their average HQ instead, I can convincingly claim, and this for a variety of reasons. If good news eventually reaches those back home from their relatives arriving in Britain, then their happiness quote might also increase. Emigrants’ parents back home will feel happy about their offsprings searching their fortunes elsewhere, and the good news creates more hope for those, still miserable left behind, as they will soon be preparing for their very own move next. Or, it might even increase because there will be more new job opportunities for those left behind. For one thing, the national unemployment stats will fall, as I don’t think there’ll be lots of Bulgarians with a job and a good life back home that will want to leave all this and move to Britain! It's mainly the unemployed who are desperate to go away. Why otherwise leave the soil of your ancestors at all? Emigration is the result of some sort of despair about your immediate and long term future. You initially leave to find your fortune elsewhere and if possible come back home some day and start all over again, but under better conditions this time, from the savings you have built when abroad. Simple logic that is. (Mind you some things in Bulgaria are still far better than in Britain. Speedtest a server in Bulgaria and compare the response and download speeds with another one in Central London. You’ll see who’s got the better pings and Mbps.) And, BTW, sun still shines far more often in Bulgaria than in Britain, and that's a confirmed fact of life. 

And I could go on and on. Sorry to say, David, most of the arguments I’m thinking of will raise both countries’ HQ (happiness quote). The Kiwi's argument was about IQ (highly invariable), whereas yours was about HQ (highly variable). I rest my case...


Sylvia said...

Dit staat ook gekend als het Will Rogers fenomeen, wat ook wordt gebruikt om zogenaamde 'stage migration' in oncologie uit te leggen! http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Will_Rogers_phenomenon

VJK said...

Thx much Sylv for pointing this out to me. I keep learning by the day. So, the NZ PM actually copied Rogers in his statement, and made history with it. Probably because everybody knows better (Lord of the Rings) NZ vs. Australia than one knows Oklahomans vs. Californians... We could have a Flemish version of it too. When Alba chased Flemish intellectuals in the 16th century into Holland (and Amsterdam in particular), then the average IQ of both regions rose. Or maybe, the Dutch rose and the Flemish fell... probably another Belgian joke, that is.