How much is your wife or husband worth? Around £70,000 ($110,000) a year, according to Andrew Oswald, economics professor at the University of Warwick in Britain, and Andrew Clark, of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris.
In a paper that will be presented to a British Association Festival of Science conference being held from Sept. 9 to 13 at Leicester University in England, Mr. Oswald tries to quantify the precise monetary value of different life events.
So, for example, the happiness generated by being married is equivalent to $110,000 of extra income. And the pain caused by bereavement would require around $267,000 in extra income to compensate for it.
It would be easy to poke fun at that kind of academic doodling. The figures look curiously precise; you might want to factor something in for who the spouse is, how often you have to see the in-laws, and how friendly they are in the morning.
Even so, a fascinating point is being made. The dismal science is slowly becoming a bit less dismal. Economics is starting to take into account more than just jobs, output and inflation.
This is long overdue. One widely observed paradox of the last few years is that although most developed countries keep getting richer and richer, measurements of the quality of life suggest that their inhabitants are becoming worse rather than better off.
Average incomes rise, but so do divorce rates, the numbers of single people, stress-related illnesses, drug addiction, depression and other everyday woes of modern life.
Plenty of studies have shown that even though wealth goes up, people don’t feel any happier. One reason might be that although traditional economic analysis is very good at measuring precise changes of output, levels of unemployment, growth of retail sales and so on, it has always been very bad at measuring other aspects of life, such as job satisfaction, personal fulfillment and health.
This isn’t to say that money doesn’t make you happier. Other things being equal, it does. But other things are not always equal. Personal happiness involves a rich blend of factors, only a few of which are captured by traditional economic analysis.
Take marriage. Again, lots of research has shown that married people are happier than single people: They have more money, they’re more stable, they eat better and take better care of their bodies, and they’re less prone to depression.
Married men, in particular, thrive compared with unmarried men, due largely to what sociologists refer to as the “guardian effect” of their wives (although there are some guys in a bar near me who have a less genteel phrase for that phenomenon).
Mr. Oswald’s paper and other studies of “happiness economics” take survey data on people’s well-being and use mathematical analysis to correlate the amount of satisfaction derived from specific events to different sums of money, thus coming up with a precise monetary value for life events.
The basic techniques have been around for years. For example, economists have long tried to quantify the costs to local residents of a new airport. Happiness economics uses the same principles, but broadens them out.
“That’s all very interesting,” you might object, “but it has nothing to do with economics. The task of the economy is to satisfy the material needs of a nation; the rest of it can be looked after by therapists and priests.” But is that really true?
If Mr. Oswald is right, and being married makes you $110,000 a year better off compared with being single, there isn’t much point in worrying so much about that next promotion or pay raise. If you’re working too late in the office and never get home to eat supper with your wife or husband, is it really worthwhile?
If you’re traveling the world in pursuit of deals and never see your kids, you might get a big bonus-but if your children don’t recognize you, are you really better off?
The way we work is a huge part of the way we live, and if people aren’t getting any happier, it’s foolish for economists to deny any responsibility for that state of affairs.
Any corporate manager will tell you that people deliver to the target, no matter how idiotic. Tell a sales force it has to get more contracts in China, and you’ll get contracts in China, even if they don’t make any money and it means losing profitable business in Germany.
Tell the marketing department you want to appeal to young customers, and they’ll go after them, even if it means alienating all the old fuddy-duddies who actually liked your product.
Likewise, we target traditional, material measures of economic success because we know how to measure them. If we could measure more precisely a greater range of life events, maybe we could start getting better at targeting them.
That way, we might start becoming happier as well as richer.
eBay v. eGray?
The Internet’s largest online auction company, eBay Inc., is weighing legal steps to block a Web site that Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon of California posted as a political parody of his opponent.
The Simon site, at www.e-gray.org, is a mock auction page listing government policy and contracts for sale by Governor Gray Davis in exchange for campaign donations. Chris Donlay, a spokesman for eBay, said the company is studying the page to see if it violates trademark laws and whether legal action is necessary.
“We are looking at it and trying to figure out what our steps would be,” Mr. Donlay said.
The Simon Web page includes a disclaimer stipulating that the site is political parody and isn’t connected with eBay.
Trademark and copyright lawyer Andrew Baum, of Darby & Darby in New York, said that most courts are likely to find that a candidate can borrow the look of someone else’s site-as long as it doesn’t mislead users as to who created the page.
“This is such a slavish imitation of the eBay site that eBay might be able to argue that someone would think eBay is supporting his speech,” Mr. Baum said. “It might succeed with the right judge.”
Mark Miner, Mr. Simon’s campaign spokesman, said the site is fair and appropriate. “There is a clear difference in the sites,” Mr. Miner said. “One site sells personal products, the other site sells personal favors. The only thing in common is that both sites sell to the highest bidder.”
Mr. Davis has an 11-point lead over Mr. Simon, son of former Treasury Secretary William Simon, in recent polls, up from a four-point lead in February. Mr. Davis has run a series of television and radio spots attacking Mr. Simon’s business acumen.
The Web site won’t sway California’s voters, a Davis spokesman said.
“They can be as clever as they like-it’s not going to get them one extra vote,” said Roger Salazar, speaking for the Davis campaign.
-Michael B. Marois
-edited by Karina Lahni