The equation for happiness

As the world starts to move from focusing on growth to wellbeing a group of neuroscientists decided to test people’s brains to check whether ‘happiness’ occurred as predicted. The BBC reports that they found

“We can look at past decisions and outcomes and predict exactly how happy you will say you are at any point in time,” said lead author Dr Robb Rutledge from University College London.

The experiment tested decisions under uncertainty, which is a well-researched topic in economics. The best model we have at the moment derives from Kahneman and Tversky’s development of prospect theory. Read more

The rhetoric of restricting the choice of the poor

Via Gareth Morgan on twitter I spotted the following post from the University of Otago Public Health blog.

The money quote:

They found that the biggest impact of a minimum price policy was on “harmful” drinkers in the lowest income quintile (7.6% reduction in alcohol), whereas the impact on harmful drinkers in the highest income quintile was modest (1%). Consumption fell by 1.6% among “responsible” drinkers in the lowest income quintile. That is, the impact is concentrated among low-income harmful drinkers.

Moreover, this Lancet paper found that “Individuals in the lowest socioeconomic group (living in routine or manual worker households and comprising 41·7% of the sample population) would accrue 81·8% of reductions in premature deaths and 87·1% of gains in terms of quality-adjusted life-years.” In the public health field, we seldom see policy packages that have such a notable impact on reducing health inequalities. [** Further comment at end].

The gains come from putting a minimum price of alcohol that prices the poor out from consumption.  Consumption that has a benefit – something that is ignored constantly.

Read more

Some beautiful links

I am not around.  Over the next three weeks, there are a series of really rubbish auto-posts are coming up about “factor shares” – I normally write posts in advance, but it is unlikely I am going to add anything or move posts around to include new ones.  During that time I’ll be reading and reviewing Capital and writing a summary document on income inequality measurement (both things I promise to share) – these are both sizable tasks I want to do, hence why I won’t be around too much.

However, this also means I can’t post on things I find cool.  So I’ll just give you some links ;)

  1. Greg Mankiw mentions the harm principle and economics.  “First do no harm” is a good principle for us to hold when considering policy, I agree.
  2. Details do matter though, via Mark Thoma and also a piece by John Aziz. My view of this in general would be that the “harm” comes from a “change” in policy from an “initial position” – how do we define this initial position such that something counts as change?  If we define it solely as “now” then we are simply conservative, if we define it as some “ideal type” that we believe is “natural for the social system”, we are trading in ideologies.  Applying the harm principle starts to get tricky! [Note:  In the comments to the recent Hand posts (here, here) there has been further discussion of this]
  3. Tim Harford, Chris Dillow, and Noah Smith all discuss behavioural economics – plenty of interesting points in there if people want to think about choice, its relation to trade-offs, and its relation to policy.
  4. From Mark Thoma again, the misuse of theoretical models.  Given my interest in methodology I’m certainly interested in reading this (what they establish as the ‘should’ how they find what ‘is’ in modeling) – I’m sure you all feel the same way :)
  5. And because I have to put up something about inequality here is Lane Kenworthy.  The US example is an interesting one, but I would almost think that lower growth in the low and middle parts of the income distribution is itself defined as higher inequality – it is almost tautological to say one caused the other.  The magnitude of the gap over there tells us that it is an issue worth looking into though!

Taxing: Choice and policy consistency

Offsetting recently posted about a tweet by Gareth Morgan on eating and control, including a reply I popped up.  Essentially, Gareth’s tweet implied that the way individuals make choices indicates we have no choice over how much they eat.  I disagreed talking about precommitment – he stated I assumed perfect information, which is both a touch untrue and (surprisingly to many) irrelevant.

It did get me thinking though.  The two of us actually have almost exactly the same model of choice in our heads for this issue, and as a result any differences of view of on the appropriateness of policy that we might have are not due to differences in the underlying model. Read more

Thinking more carefully about gifts

Mieke Welvaert recently discussed gift giving, pointing out that it was significantly more complicated than the “just give cash” statement Matt Nolan made a few years back.  For example a gift is an inherently different good to the same self-purchased product – I good is not just the set of physical properties that constitute it:

There are some things people like to receive but probably wouldn’t buy if you gave them the cash to do so. Flowers and chocolate come to mind for this category.  I personally, much prefer to receive flowers than to buy them for myself.  I understand that many people enjoy a box of chocolates free of guilt if they were given the chocolates rather than if they bought them for themselves.

Furthermore let us not forget the importance of signalling – gift giving can be a signal, which may have value, or may in itself be waste.  When it comes to gifts the key point that comes out is that “efficiency is a really hard idea”.