The Case for Happiness-Based Economics:
In 2008, economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers painstakingly converted incomes to purchase price parity, normalized different scales for happiness, and even re-interpreted survey questions in other languages. They then reexamined Easterlin’s claims and found that they didn’t hold up. Their conclusion: Absolute income matters. Life satisfaction continues to increase with greater income, after all.
Neoliberal economists cheered. Angus Deaton said wryly, “As an economist I tend to think money is good for you, and am pleased to find some evidence for that.” Stevenson and Wolfers wrote triumphantly that their findings “put to rest the earlier claim that economic development does not raise subjective well-being,” and all but broke out the green pom-poms to cheer for GDP.
Their research, however, also emphasizes something that most economists are less eager to discuss. Central to Stevenson and Wolfers’s analysis is the use of a logarithmic scale to relate happiness to income. What correlates with a fixed increment of happiness is not a dollar increase in absolute income (e.g., an additional $1000), but a percentage increment (e.g., an additional 100%). So, going from a $5000 annual income to $50,000 links with as much additional happiness as going from $50K to $500K, or from $500K to $5 million, or even from $5 million to $50 million.
To put it another way, as income rises, every additional dollar represents a smaller increment of happiness. At one level, this is perfectly obvious. The first increase of $45K — from $5K to $50K — would take a family from hunger and homelessness to being well-fed in an apartment, probably with a TV to boot. An additional $45K of income to $95K might allow for a few luxuries, but certainly nothing close to the difference between starvation and the middle class!
Economists know this at some level, but they largely neglect it in their models.
Read on at The Atlantic.