The recent “empirical” turn in economics should be known as an “applied” one and it is just one in a long series of related developments. Moreover, it is a move towards the historical roots of the discipline. Those are some lessons from Beatrice Cherrier‘s essay “Is there really an empirical turn in economics?“. Based on research conducted together with Roger Backhouse, she takes issue with the idea that there has been a revolution in economic research involving empirics. Some points I liked:
Empirical work has been live and well, what has changed is its recent larger role in top journals. Besides, the view of theory as dominating in economics is based on looking only at the last 50 years – pre- and immediate post-war economics used to be a lot more empirical.
Much theory has become more applied, often involving data. And John Bates Clark medal citations stress “applied,” often taken consisting of a mix of theory and empirics.
Increasing availablity of data is a development that has been ongoing since at least the 1960’s. Hype around and criticism of new, large sources of data were the same in the 1970’s as today.
Computerization is overrated, much modern empirical work is computationally and numerically very simple.
Oscar Morgenstern (of von Neumann and Morgenstern‘s Theory of Games and Economic Behavior fame) proposed that to become a fellow of the Econometric Society, it should be a requirement to “have done some econometric work in the strictest sense” and be “in actual contact with data they have explored and exploited for which purpose they may have even developed new methods.”
That is the title of a just released working paper by Simen Markussen, Knut Røed, and myself. We show that access to commercial television channels during childhood and adolescence from the 1980’s onwards in Norway reduced cognitive ability scores and high school graduation rates of young men.
We investigate what happens when Norwegian social insurance offices increase their use of conditions would-be welfare recipients need to satisfy in order to receive welfare. Using the staggered introduction of this program and based on double and triple difference models, we find that such conditionality reduces the number of young people that receive welfare, and more importantly, increases the high school graduation rate. For young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, we find substantial and precise effects, whereas we find no effects on youth from more resourceful backgrounds, as expected. A few years later, we find that those who were exposed to new regime have more education, earn more, and are more likely to be employed. Thus even though activating these people may cost something upfront, it pays off in the long run.
The newspaper has an interview with a guy who got on track and gets some work experience through this system. Here is the abstract of the research paper:
Based on administrative data, we analyze empirically the effects of stricter conditionality for social assistance receipt on welfare dependency and high school completion rates among Norwegian youths. Our evaluation strategy exploits a geographically differentiated implementation of conditionality. The causal effects are identified on the basis of larger-thanexpected within-municipality changes in outcomes that not only coincide with the local timing of conditionality implementation, but do so in a way that correlates with individual ex ante predicted probabilities of becoming a social assistance claimant. We find that stricter conditionality significantly reduces welfare claims and increases high school completion rates.
Does people’s life satisfaction adapt to material improvements? In a recent paper (gated), Galiani, Gertler and Undurraga find that it does, even in a case of very poor people receiving a really basic service (housing). In a large-scale experiment, some poor households in El Salvador, Mexico and Uruguay were randomly selected to receive a ready-made small house. Receiving such housing increased the share of households reporting to be “satsfied” or “very satisfied” with the quality of their life by around around 40 %, from 0.53 to 0.73, thus confirming that it was something these households really needed. What about the effect in the long term? Eight months later, more than half of the gain had disappeared, highly consistent with the hedonic treadmill hypothesis.
Frijters, Johnston and Shields consider the question Does Childhood Predict Adult Life Satisfaction? Using repeated surveys of people born in the UK in 1958, they are able to explain only 7 % of people’s adult life satisfaction with a very wide range of family and childhood variables. Interestingly, exploiting the panel dimension, they estimate that around 40 % of adult life satisfaction is a trait (i.e. fixed), so it is surprising that their first number is so low. It is as if type of childhood almost does not matter. Education and wages are predicted much better.
I do not know if information on time preferences would have helped, but Golsteyn, Grönqvist and Lindahl at least claim that Adolescent Time Preferences Predict Lifetime Outcomes in their article in the same issue. They find that Swedes who were future-oriented (had low discount rates) as children went on to obtain more education, better grades, higher incomes, and better health (obesity and mortality) as adults than their more impatient peers. The authors are admirably clear that they are not estimating causal effects.
Manyreported the paper on smart phones and child injuries by Craig Palsson the previous days. The finding is that the construction of 3G networks in US cities may have lead to increased use of smartphones, less supervision of children, and more children going to hostpital with injuries. I believe most parents are too restrictive, so I was happy to see the following sentence regarding the welfare effects:
“Even though child injuries should not be taken lightly, some might argue that parents were oversupplying supervision or that injuries help build character, and therefore the smartphone-induced injures are welfare enhancing.”