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Monday, October 31, 2005



the main claim of the 'happiness' literature is that over many countries and many decades there is diminishing marginal reported happiness with respect to income (once you get past a certain threshold of income).

what oswald does in this piece is to swap out the measurable entity of 'reported happiness' and insert the abstract entity of 'utility'. he then reasonably claims that reported happiness is an imperfect proxy for 'utility'. i suggest further that 'utility' is a perfectly useless abstraction.

oswald claims psychological / survey design factors may be responsible for the apparent diminishing marginal reported happiness with increasing income. he points out correctly that the shape of the 'utility' vs reported happiness function remains unknown. yes, unmeasurable and unknown.

next, he explores the social science literature to see if the methodological issues he raises are well-researched problems in the social science literature and finds that in fact.....sorry i made this bit up.

rather than exploring the broader social science literature, oswald is content to take his place in a long line of economists warning against the perils of using subjective data.

my take is that the 'happiness' literature is interesting and of genuine relevance to policymakers and the general public alike. moreover, it reverses the trend of economic imperialism insofar as it involves social science methodologies being applied to problems traditionally considered the turf of economists.

if economists like oswald prefer to continue to deal in irrelevant generalities they will simply diminish in relevance over time.


Why on earth would you base any serious policy action on what people write in answer to questions about their opinions? What you need are experiments that answer the key questions.


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