Sunday, April 1, 2007

The Honorary Degree: Celebrating A New Beginning

Since spring commencement is approaching at universities across the country, I have decided to share with readers in this week’s post my nomination for the recipient of the honorary degree from my home institution, the University of Southern California. According to president emeritus of the University of Iowa and Dartmouth College James Freedman, “In bestowing an honorary degree [of which there is a long tradition in American higher education], a university makes an explicit statement to its students and the world about the qualities of character and attainment it admires most.” The Consistent with this dictum, the University of Southern California honors and celebrates individuals whose character embodies the five ideal qualities embraced by the Trojan family: faithful, scholarly, skillful, courageous, and ambitious, and who “have distinguished themselves through extraordinary achievements in scholarship, the professions, or other creative activities.” I would for these reasons like to nominate Dutch economist Bernard Van Praag, an outstanding pioneer in the research of subjective wellbeing, for Doctor of Humane Letters.

Van Praag (pictured to the right) is emeritus university professor in the Amsterdam School of Economics and founding president of the European Society for Population Economics. His studies focus on measurements of happiness, econometric methods, poverty, social security, and health. For over fifty years economists have stressed the superiority of ordinal utility measures, arguing that people’s preference is revealed through their consumption choices. Van Praag, however, was not satisfied with the “awkward position” in which the economist is placed by observing only that “individual evaluates the first situation as better than the second” but not “how much better.” He suggests that utility should be measured cardinally by using numerical values and in 1971 formulated the Income Evaluation Question (IEQ) to measure welfare derived from income. His famous claim, “only by questioning the individual himself we might be able to get information about his feelings on welfare,” boldly challenged conventional economic research methods. While the validity of what is now known as “subjective wellbeing” was rejected by economists from all major schools, Van Praag nonetheless dedicated his research to the very topic, demonstrating remarkable boldness and proving himself faithful to the pursuit of knowledge. Mainstream scholars claimed that individual’s own evaluation of their happiness cannot be trusted, but after studying data from repeated surveys Van Praag disproved this assertion by publishing results that show that self-reported happiness is consistent and unaffected by transient emotions. And despite intense pressure he persevered to design better measures of happiness and life satisfaction and to prove with empirical evidence that self-reported welfare is indeed reliable. TTTo his credit, in the past decade the study of happiness has been increasingly accepted by scholars worldwide as an academic discipline that is both relevant and intriguing. Such accomplishments are indeed “distinguished and sublime” as Freedman pronounces in his description of the qualifications for the honorary degree. By recognizing Van Praag’s achievements USC can fulfill the purpose of “elevat[ing] the university in the eyes of the world.”

Van Praag played a crucial role in promoting a transformation of the field through his teaching and many published works. Indeed, he even went one step further to suggest that subjective wellbeing deserves to be recognized by mainstream economists because its implications are of great consequence. If awarded the honorary degree by USC, Van Praag would very likely, in his commencement speech, call the graduating class’s attention to the results of his investigation into the effect of income on welfare. And the fact that more money does not necessarily bring more happiness would be surprising to most. He would probably emphasize the need for policy makers to become familiar with welfare theories and empirical evidence in order to design priorities that actually improve life satisfaction instead of merely raising the country’s GDP. His words would challenge our graduates to reevaluate their dreams and aspirations, possibly correcting for overly materialistic tendencies and in their place investing more in non-pecuniary domains such as health and family. I believe that Van Praag’s courageous character and illuminating message would be inspiring to the graduates of 2007 as they leave our university to become leaders in their fields and communities.

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