KOMMERSANT

A Russian Toast To 2013, Ringing Up The Global Price Of Happiness

GDP v. Happy Planet Index? Some New Year's number crunching from Moscow, comparing life in cold and warm climates, rich and poor countries, free and less free societies.

Smiling in Red Square
Smiling in Red Square
Nadezhda Petrova

MOSCOW - We hope that this past year has been a happy one for you. Of course, individual incomes for many dropped, while the world as a whole saw a slowdown of economic growth.

But those details are not enough to interfere with a Russian’s happiness. On the other hand, there is no amount of economic growth that would have made Russians happier.

“They’ve had their fill,” is perhaps what a resident of the Central African Republic might say, where per capita GDP ($445) is roughly 30 times less then ours ($13,764), but where people are only four times less happy, according to the Happy Planet Index (HPI).

That hypothetical African would not be far from the truth. Statistical analysis has shown that per capita GDP only has a strong influence on happiness in the poorest of countries. It’s actually quite easy to calculate exactly how poor a country has to be for it to matter. By looking at the HPI and GDPs, there is a strong correlation between GDP and HPI up until a per capita GDP of around $2,500. After that, the correlation disappears.

We are not the first ones to notice this. The HPI, which has been measured since 2006, came about because rich countries had gotten so rich that their inhabitants started to doubt the importance of material goods. After the 2008 crisis, the researchers behind the HPI learned that the best time to talk about the eternal, and in our view absurd, question of whether or not growth should be the goal of economic politics was when the economy was shaky. The subject was even discussed at the London School of Economics.

That is strange because Britain is one of the countries where there is a very slight but still positive correlation between wealth and happiness. Not because the British are so poor, but more likely because the GDP is a product of their self-realization, of the values that go along with capitalism.

It is safe to say that in countries that have already climbed out of humiliating poverty but have not yet reached first-world standards of living, happiness is determined not by GDP, but by something else, since there appears to be no correlation between the two whatsoever. But it appears that it is even more complicated then that.

When we asked a researcher to verify the conclusion we had come to, he determined that there was a small group of extremely poor countries where happiness and GDP were linked. But for countries with GDP between $9,500 and $14,000, he found the correlation between GDP and Happiness to be negative. Russia’s GDP, again, is just shy of $13,800.

You can’t buy happiness

This can be explained logically. The group of countries we are talking about includes several former Soviet states as well several Latin American countries, where people are inexplicably happy no matter what their income. At first, researchers suggested that was because of the lack of political conflict, but most people would agree that political life is not exactly calm in Panama or Venezuela.

You might say, “It’s easy to be happy in Panama, it’s the weather! How can one enjoy life at minus 25 degrees Celsius?” But in similarly frosty places like Finland, Iceland and Norway people are far happier, although they are also much richer. But in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, which aren’t exactly tropical and are about as well off as Russia, people are exactly as happy as Russians - which is to say, not very happy.

To further explore this hypothesis, it is interesting to find countries that are richer, warmer and less happy then Russia - places like Kuwait and Bahrain. Both countries have had their share of political upheaval in the past several years, so perhaps that has something to do with it. You can’t buy happiness when there is no freedom.

It’s clear that this is something like Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” pyramid. Once you’ve taken care of basic needs, people want love, respect and self-realization. Democracy is not that far up that pyramid, either, because democracy is respect. Although continually soaring incomes can help things. But Russia has to find it’s own way now - because it is far from the high incomes of the gulf regions, but just as far from the respect of Western democracies.

Maslow's pyramid, courtesy of Wikipedia

This is the trap that Russia risks falling into – the trap of the middle-income countries. When the economy has used up its ability to grow quickly by fully using the labor resources of the country, the economy will have to be restructured. Some predictions say that Russia will reach this dangerous crossroad before the end of 2013. And when that happens, it will be even more impossible to buy the people happiness with increased GDP. There are already obvious signs - life expectancy and consumption have gone up, but Russia’s HPI score has not changed in three years.

Throughout 2012, Russian sociologists have been repeating that now that the country is no longer threatened by absolute poverty, people will start demanding other things, like education, health care, public safety and good housing and public services. Love and democracy are the next steps on the road to happiness. So perhaps the old New Year’s toast, “To New Happiness,” is not so ridiculous after all.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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