Category Archives: finance

Equal Societies Good for All

The more unequal a society’s income distribution, the more health and social problems ail both the rich and the poor.

With this theory brought to his attention through the “quite fascinating book” The Spirit Level, Nicolas Baumard displays the evidence to support the theory that economic inequality is bad for all inhabitants of a country before considering some possible explanations, and looking at what this means in terms of poverty and climate change.

It is common knowledge that in rich societies the poor have shorter lives and suffer more from almost every social problem. In [The Spirit Level], [the authors] demonstrate that more unequal societies are bad for almost everyone – the well-off as well as the poor […]. The remarkable data the book lays out and the measures it uses are like a ‘spirit level’ which we can hold up to compare the conditions of different societies. The differences revealed, even between rich market democracies, are striking. Almost every modern social and environmental problem – ill-health, lack of community life, violence, drugs, obesity, mental illness, long working hours, big prison populations – is more likely to occur in a less equal society.

Baseball fan? Baumard also points out that “the more equal the salaries in a base-ball team are, the better its performance”.

India and the Definition of Middle Class

A newly proposed international definition of the middle class for developing countries, produced by the Center for Global Development for the World Bank, has some surprising conclusions for India.

The report, produced by the president of the Center for Global Development, Nancy Birdsall, suggests that “middle class” is defined as everyone with an income above $10 a day, excluding those in the top 5% of earners in the country… meaning India has no middle class.

This is a combination both of the depth of India’s poverty and its inequality. China had no middle class in 1990, but by 2005, had a small urban middle class (3% of the population). South Africa (7%), Russia (30%) and Brazil (19%) all had sizable middle classes in 2005. […]

In socio-political terms, the middle class is traditionally that segment of society with a degree of economic security that allows it to uphold the rule of law, invest and desire stability. They do not, unlike those defined as rich, depend on inheritances or other non-productive sources of income. […]

OECD countries define their poverty lines as 50% of median income which works out […] to about $30 day. In the US the poverty line for a single individual in 2008 was $29 per day and for each individual in a four-person household was about $14 per day.

However, people in developing countries living on even $10 a day still have extremely low social indicators. Economist Lant Pritchett has shown that infant mortality of households in the richest quintile in Bolivia was 32 and Ghana 58 per 1,000. Fewer than 25% of people in the richest quintile in India complete 9 grades of school, Pritchett showed. “An upper limit of the 95th percentile, while on the high side, is just about sufficient to exclude the countrys richest,” Birdsall adds.

via The Browser

Abstraction to Increase Effort (and Spending)

When there is a medium placed between our effort and a desired outcome, we strive to maximise this medium regardless of whether or not it leads optimally to that outcome (think points or virtual currencies as a medium when attempting to obtain goods).

That’s my attempt at a concise summary of the findings from a study coining the phrase ‘medium maximisation’.

This example taken from the paper (pdf) and presented by The New York Times may help:

Students were given a choice between two simple tasks. One would take six minutes, and the students were told that they would get a gallon of Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream as a reward. The other would require seven minutes of work, and the payment would be a gallon of Haagen-Dazs pistachio.

Not surprisingly, since the second option involved more work and a less popular flavor, only about a quarter of the students chose it.

But the researchers also repeated the experiment with a couple of tweaks. In the new version, the six-minute task led to a payoff of 60 points, and the seven-minute task brought 100 points.

The researchers then told the students that anyone who finished with between 50 and 99 points would be given a gallon of vanilla ice cream. Anyone with 100 points would get pistachio.

Practically, there was no difference between the two experiments. But the outcomes ended up being very different.

In the comments of a previous post of mine looking at the denomination effect, the idea that “the greater the level of abstraction, the more ready we are to spend” was mooted. So it seems to be the case here.

via @BFchirpy

Bonus Cultures and Ideal Banks, Schools, Hospitals

In light of the ongoing debate with regards to the financial sector’s so-called ‘bonus culture’, economist John Kay looks briefly at the history of the bonus and why the idea of a ‘bonus culture’ is a “poor joke” (using the example of teacher and doctor bonuses).

At one time, the offer and receipt of a gratuity was a statement of social and economic superiority on the part of the giver, its acceptance a statement of social and economic inferiority on the part of the recipient. To be salaried – to be trusted to do the job for which you had been contracted and paid – was a mark of status. Contractually agreed performance-related pay – commissions and piece work – was widespread in shops and factories, but has now largely been abandoned.

The common outcome was that employees came to care more about the quantity of the product than its quality. The system polarised the conflict between the interests of the organisation and of those who worked in it. […]

Teachers and doctors strongly resist the introduction of a bonus culture: not just because they resent measurement of performance and accountability for their activities […] but because they oppose importing the culture of assembly lines. They fear an environment in which they would be encouraged to focus on narrowly quantifiable objectives at the expense of the underlying needs of clients.

Even if many teachers and doctors are incompetent and lazy, many others are seriously committed to the organisations for which they work, the subjects and specialisations to which they are devoted, and to a broader sense of professional ethics: and it is only people like these who establish the kinds of schools and hospitals we want as parents or patients.

The Economically-(Im)Perfect World of Online Games

Kristian Segerstrale–owner of online games company Playfish (acquired by Electronic Arts for $400m in November 2009)–discusses why online game environments are exciting places for economics research (and specifically: “how social factors influence economic decision making”):

When economists try to model behavior in the real world, they’re always dealing with imperfect information. “The data is always limited, and once you get hold of it there are tons of reasons to mistrust it,” Segerstrale says. In virtual worlds, on the other hand, “the data set is perfect. You know every data point with absolute certainty. In social networks you even know who the people are. You can slice and dice by gender, by age, by anything.”

Instead of dealing only with historical data, in virtual worlds “you have the power to experiment in real time,” Segerstrale says. What happens to demand if you add a 5 percent tax to a product? What if you apply a 5 percent tax to one half of a group and a 7 percent tax to the other half? “You can conduct any experiment you want,” he says. “You might discover that women over 35 have a higher tolerance to a tax than males aged 15 to 20—stuff that’s just not possible to discover in the real world.”

Of course, there’s a fairly obvious caveat:

One possible flaw in this economic model is that the kind of people who spend hours online taking care of imaginary pets may not be representative of the rest of the population. The data might be “perfect” and “complete,” but the world from which it’s gathered is anything but that.