Monthly Archives: November 2012

… And Does Happiness Lead to Wealth?

Poverty may beget poverty. And happiness, happiness. According to the Los Angeles Times:

People who express more positive emotions as teenagers and greater life satisfaction as young adults tend to have higher incomes by the time they’re 29, according to a study published Monday by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study asked teenagers about their life satisfaction, and later looked at their incomes at age 29. The happiest teenagers  were making an average of $8,000 more than the gloomiest by that time. According to the article, “Deeply unhappy teens’ future incomes were 30% lower than the average, while very happy teens earned 10% above average.”



Are the Poor More Irrational, or Does Poverty Lead to Poverty?

Why are the people who can least afford to buy lottery tickets the most likely to do so? Any half-decent mathematician can show that lottery tickets are a losing bet. Buying them is irrational to buy them, unless you derive pleasure from losing. The same goes for taking out high-interest paycheck loans.

Are the poor just more irrational than others? Are they poor because they not financially savvy? Or perhaps is something about being poor that’s at the root of the problem?

A recent behavioral economics study suggests that it may be the latter.

Researchers from University of Chicago, Harvard, and Princeton set up five different economic games. In one, for example, 60 participants played an “Angry Birds” type slingshot game. “Poor” players were allowed 3 shots per round, while the “rich” got 15.

The poor players were more careful with their shots and earned more points per shot than the rich. Interpretation: When you have less money, you’re more careful in spending it, and that pays off.

That is, unless they were allowed to “borrow”. Players were given the option of taking 1 extra shot, but in exchange had to give up 2 shots in a later round. This obviously was a bad deal – an effective 100% interest rate – but the poor players were 12 times as likely as rich players to do so. Never mind that the poor could least afford to sacrifice any of their 3 shots. And “borrowing” a shot eliminated any advantage the poor got from their added care in shooting.

Admittedly, Angry Birds games are a long way from the real world, but economic experiments such as these can go a long way towards shedding light on actual human behavior, particularly when a number of different games find evidence supporting the same conclusions.

The researchers concluded that people living in poverty aren’t necessarily less rational. They just see things differently, perhaps focusing more closely on certain specific needs, and disregarding others. When messages are tailored to the way poorer people are thinking, they do better at reaching goals.

There are lots of ways that society can help the poor improve their financial (and health) situations. Things like automatically enrolling low-wage employees in retirement and savings program, or mandatory school vaccination policies.

It’s easy to brush off the problems of the poor and simply blame the poor themselves. But studies such as this suggest that poverty itself might be one of the causes of poverty. This might help to explain why it’s so difficult for societies to alleviate it.

Fiscal Cliff Talks Underway; Both Sides Upbeat

Negotiations on the Fiscal Cliff have started, and both sides are sounding positive. According to the Washington Post:

The four Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate were unanimous after the initial round of talks in saying they were confident that they and the White House could agree on measures to raise federal revenue and cut spending before a Jan. 1 deadline, when draconian provisions originally designed to force a compromise are scheduled to take effect.

The stock market was cheered by the positive tone of the news, with the S&P 500 index closing up by half a percentage point today, after having trended downward since the election on November 6.

Fiscal Cliffnotes: The Crisis in a Nutshell

With the election over, politicians in Washington are scrambling to avoid the “fiscal cliff”.

So what is this ominous-sounding escarpment?

Because the Republicans and Democrats were unable to agree on reducing the deficit, they passed the Budget Control Act in August 2011. This provided for automatic spending cuts if budget negotiations by a “super-committee”  failed. The negotiations did fail, so now Congress and the President have to find a new solution or else those increases and decreases will kick in beginning in January.

At the same time, “temporary” tax cuts passed by earlier Congresses are due to expire at the end of 2012 as well.

The fiscal cliff will effectively cut federal government spending by about $70 billion in 2013 and by $150 billion in 2014, increasing to nearly $500 billion in 2022. At the same time, taxes will increase by more than $300 billion in 2013 and by more than $380 in 2014, increasing to nearly $700 billion more in 2022. Together, these will decrease the deficit by more than $1 trillion in 2022.

So why is decreasing the deficit such a bad thing?

It’s not a matter of just decreasing the deficit. It’s how the fiscal cliff would do it: suddenly and indiscriminately.

According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the fiscal cliff will drive the U.S. economy into another recession next year, and increase the unemployment rate from its current 7.9 percent to 9.1 percent by the end of 2013. Also, GDP will drop by 0.5 percent in 2013.

As Forbes points out,

The cuts hit all areas of the federal budget, including a $55 billion reduction to the Pentagon’s budget in 2013, a reduction of payments to physicians participating in Medicare, substantial cuts to FEMA and the Dept. of Education budget along with a host of serious reductions across the wide ranging operations of the federal government.

And let’s not even talk about the horror of those huge tax increases hitting in the midst of this fragile recovery.

Congress passed this plan never intending it to actually go into effect. It was supposed to be so horrible that both Democrats and Republicans would do anything in order to avoid it, forcing everyone to compromise. As of yet, that hasn’t worked, and time’s running out.


The bets are that the fiscal cliff still will be avoided one way or another. The most likely outcome is a cop-out compromise that kicks the problem further down the road. Perhaps some spending cuts and a few revenue increases that make no one happy but attempt to show goodwill on each side’s part.

Both Democrats and Republicans are posturing heavily, putting on their game faces in hopes of cowing the other side into compromise. President Obama has announced that he won’t accept any agreement that doesn’t include tax increases on the wealthiest Americans. Meanwhile, as of late 2011, 238 of the 242 Republicans in the House of Representatives and 41 out of the 47 Republicans in the Senate had signed agreements to “oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rate for individuals and business”.

Some see President Obama as having an upper hand, given his recent election victory and the pickup of 2 seats in the Senate. However, this is hardly a solid mandate by any historical standards. Yet Republicans have a lot to lose if defense and other funding is cut dramatically. It’s also been suggested that President Obama has little choice but to play hardball in negotiations, or else he’ll be paying for any signs of weakness through the next four years.


A big part of the equation, as with all budget impasses, is which side would be able to paint the other as the real obstructionists. The bottom line is that no one really wants this impending fiscal cliff, and everyone has an incentive to want to avert it. But depending on the political and interpersonal dynamics, it’s still possible.

No one’s questioning the need to reduce the deficit eventually. No government can continue to borrow an increasing amount at an increasing rate indefinitely. The real issue is how best to do it. As with everything in economics, there are trade-offs, and people with different values have different view about which trade-offs are worth it.

At the end of the day, all we can do is hope that our politicians can rise above politics to find a solution – and contact them regularly to tell them we want them to do so.

Good News – The Unemployment Rate Increased

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) had some good news for us yesterday. The unemployment rate increased from 7.8 percent to 7.9 percent.

You read that right: it’s good news that the unemployment rate increased. In fact, economists have been waiting for it to increase, and have been a little disappointed that it didn’t increase sooner.

This might sound a little balmy, but there’s method to this madness. It’s all in the reason the unemployment rate increased.

The unemployment rate is the number of unemployed people divided by the total number of unemployed plus employed. The BLS collects these numbers by contacting 60,000 households every month.

To be “unemployed”, you have to be actively looking for work. People who are aren’t actively looking aren’t included, even if they’d like to be working.

During a severe recession like we just had, lots of people get so discouraged about finding work that they give up and stop looking – or, as economists say, they exit the workforce. They’re no longer considered either employed or unemployed if they’re not actively looking.

When job markets improve after the downturn, many of these discouraged workers again start to look for work. This is a good sign for the economy, and typically indicates that things will continue to improve.

In October, the number of unemployed in the U.S. increased by 170,000, to 12.3 million. At the same time, the number of employed increased by 410,000, to 143.4 million. As a result, the unemployment rate increased from 7.8 to 7.9 percent.

I’ll be anxious to see the JOLT (Job Openings, Layoffs, and Turnover) data that will be coming out on Tuesday, November 6. It will provide more details about exactly what is going on in the job market, and what is (likely) causing it.