ESRI Report on Consumer Decision Making

The ESRI published a report on Friday entitled “An Investigation of Consumers’ Capabilities with Complex Products“. The authors are Pete Lunn, Marek Bohacek, Jason Somerville, Aine Ni Choisdealbha and Féidhlim McGowan. It contains a fascinating range of experimental findings demonstrating the pronounced difficulties experienced by consumers in valuing and making decisions with complex, multi-attribute products.

Below is from the ESRI press release. This has been a long-run research programme and the work is worth wide-spread debate in terms of implications for consumer protection, regulation and related policy areas.

PRICE Lab is a research programme in behavioural economics, jointly funded by the Central Bank of Ireland, the Commission for Communications Regulation, the Commission for Energy Regulation and the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission. The lab uses computerised experiments to study what consumers are capable of and what they are not.

The experiments described in the report systematically tested how accurately consumers could distinguish good deals from bad deals. The results showed that once consumers had to take into account more than two or three factors at the same time, they struggled to spot good deals and often made mistakes.

The findings also revealed systematic biases in consumers’ choices. Across multiple experiments, consumers tended to think that deals closer to the top of the product range were good value while deals closer to the bottom were bad, even when the high-end products were expensive for what they were and the low-end products were good value at the price listed.

The report discusses implications of the results for consumer protection. The findings suggest that consumers can benefit if product ranges and descriptions are kept simple. Where companies instead market products in an unnecessarily complex fashion, with multiple characteristics and price components, consumers will be more likely to make mistakes. In markets where consumers struggle with the volume or complexity of product information, comprehensive, independent price comparison sites can play an important role, by helping consumers to integrate the information or by drawing consumers’ attention to the most important product features.

Odds on Brexit

I posted before about David Bell’s analysis of the Scottish referendum bookies odds. The bookmakers seemed to do a good job not overreacting to the late poll numbers showing a marked swing to Yes. The days before the referendum were throwing up some dramatic poll results but the odds did not adjust as dramatically, implying the bookies were either temporally averaging across polls, had some priors about the quality of the polls, or were doing a degree of Bayesian updating or something similar. David has provided a nice piece here for those looking to keep track of bookies odds for Brexit. For now, it looks like Stay is the favorite by quite a margin and more than one would think just by looking at opinion polls.

Behavioural Science and Policy Network Meet-Up

Details of our 4th Irish Behavioural Science and Policy network meet-up are below. Sign up for the mailing list here. Sign up for the event itself here. Registration is free.

The fourth Irish Behavioural Science and Policy Network meet-up will take place on April 25th at 6pm in Dublin city centre (venue tbc). It will end at 8pm.  Each meet-up is structured around a collection of short talks, where each speaker describes briefly an idea they are working on (or thinking about), followed by questions, potential suggestions for collaboration between members, and a group discussion on the collection of talks.

This session will focus on applications of behavioural science to public policy. including health applications and the role of design principles. Speakers will include Dan Hayden from UCDClare Delargy from the BITEoin O’Malley from DCU and David Hevey from TCD.

All those interested are welcome to attend, so please do share this event information with anyone who you think would like to come along.

We look forward to seeing you on the 25th of April.

8th Annual Economics and Psychology Conference ESRI Dublin

8th Annual Economics and Psychology Conference ESRI Dublin 

The eight annual one day conference on Economics and Psychology will be held on November 27th at the ESRI in Dublin. The purpose of these sessions is to develop the link between Economics, Psychology and cognate disciplines in Ireland. A special theme of these events is the implications of behavioural economics for public policy. Please sign up here to attend. There is no registration fee. Our keynote speakers are: Alan Sanfey, one of the world’s leading experts on fairness and social decision making; Stefan Hunt, who will speak about behavioural economics and financial regulation; and Pelle Hansen, who will discuss ongoing work on behavioural science and policy in Denmark.

At the last event in November 2014 we agreed to develop a broader network to meet more regularly to discuss work at the intersection of economics, psychology and policy. This has had three meet-ups so far and a fourth will take place on November 9th. Anyone interested in this area is welcome to attend. A website with more details and a mailing list to sign up to is available here. There are currently over 100 people signed up to the network and the events have been, at least in my view, very lively and interesting. There are several more planned for throughout 2016 and we welcome suggestions.

Programme 

830am to 9am: Registration

9.15am to 940am: Cathal Fitzgerald (DCU) “I Groupthink Therefore We Are: Detecting Behavioural Convergence in Leaders Before the Economic Crisis”.

9.40am to 1005am: Michael Daly (Stirling and UCD) “Childhood Self-Control and Smoking Throughout Life”.

1005am to 1030am: Victoria Taranu (Universiteit Hasselt ) “The implications of nudging in reducing residential energy demand and its potential for the EPC”.

1030am to 11am: Coffee

11am to 1125am: Leonhard Lades (Stirling) “Present bias and everyday self-control failures: A Day Reconstruction Study”.

1125am to 1150pm: David Comerford (Stirling). “The role of agency in preferences”.

1150pm to 1215pm: Irene Mosca and Cathal McCRory (TCD): “Personality and Wealth Accumulation Among Older Couples: Do Dispositional Characteristics Pay Dividends?”.

1215pm to 1pm: Alan Sanfey (Radbood). “Social motivations in decision-making: Insights from Decision Neuroscience”.

1pm to 2pm: LUNCH

2pm to 240pm: Pete Lunn (ESRI). “Pricelab: experiments for consumer policy”

240pm to 320pm: Stefan Hunt (FCA). “Applying behavioural insights to regulation: lessons from consumer financial protection”.

320pm to 350pm Coffee

350pm to 430pm: Pelle G Hansen  (Roskilde University). “Applying behavioural science in Denmark: progress and lessons”.

430 to 5pm Discussion

Geary Institute Workshop on Well-Being and Economic Conditions

The Geary Institute is hosting a half-day workshop to look at changes in well-being in Ireland over the last 10 to 15 years. The specific aim is to consider a wide range of possible outcomes including physical and mental health as well as subjective well-being. Moreover we want to draw on a range of approaches from epidemiology, psychological medicine and the social sciences as well as different types of data. The event will be held in the UCD Geary Institute on Tuesday November 17th from 1130pm to 4pm. A light lunch would be provided.  This is is likely to be a full event so please RSVP to geary@ucd.ie to register attendance (there is no fee) and also let us know if you subsequently cannot make it.

Co-organisers: Kevin Denny (UCD) and Liam Delaney (Stirling University)

Programme:

1130pm to 1150pm: Registration

11.50pm – 1200pm: Introduction and Aims

1200pm – 1230pm: Brendan Walsh (UCD): “Reflections on Economic Conditions and Well-being in Ireland”.

1230pm – 1.00pm: Paul Corcoran (UCC) “Impact of Austerity and Recession on Suicide and Self-Harm in Ireland”.

1.00pm-130pm: Lunch

130pm – 2pm: Kevin Denny (UCD): “Self-reported health in good times and in bad: Ireland in the 21st century”.

2pm – 230pm: Eithne Sexton (TCD) – “Subjective wellbeing at older ages in Ireland 2009-2013: Predictors of change over time”.

230pm – 3pm: Cecily Kelleher (UCD): “Impact of the Economic Climate on Health Status during the first two decades of the 21st Century in the Republic of Ireland: Findings from the Lifeways Cross-Generation Cohort study of a Thousand Families”.

3pm – 330pm: Michael Hogan (NUIG):  “Engaging with Citizens in the Design of Well-being Measures and Policies:  Systems Thinking and the Public Participation Network”.

330 – 4pm: Discussion

Brexit and Ireland

The election of the majority Conservative government in May meant that a referendum to decide whether Britain remains part of the EU became inevitable. A commitment to an “in-out” referendum on EU membership was provided in the May Queen’s Speech and it will likely go ahead in 2016 (or 2017 at the latest). Opinion polls show a split electorate. Risk aversion and other status quo factors should work in favour of the “stay” side. Bookies odds reflect this with at least one popular bookmaker placing the odds of a “leave” result at 3-1. In any case while the likeliest outcome at present is that Britain will remain in the EU, it is still a strong possibility they will leave and worth discussing in terms of implications for Britain and other countries. Germane to the title of this blog the implications for the Irish economy broadly are worth discussing.

In the draft national risk assessment published by the Taoiseach’s office earlier this year, Brexit is mentioned as follows:

“Following the general election in May, the British Government is likely to make proposals both on how the functioning of the EU could be improved and on how specific UK concerns about EU membership could be addressed, with the possibility of a UK referendum on EU membership. A fundamental change to the role of the UK in the EU, or a period of continuing uncertainty regarding the UK’s relationship with the EU, could present significant challenges for the EU as a whole and for Ireland in particular, especially in terms of (i) pursuit of Ireland’s objectives as a Member State as the UK is an important ally within the EU on negotiations on issues of mutual concern such as trade and the deepening of the single market; 24 (ii) bilateral relations with the UK, including the significant economic and trading relationship; and (iii) the impact on Northern Ireland issues and North/South relations.”

A number of questions come to mind in the prospect of Britain leaving the EU. I raise these purely for discussion and they are not ordered by any degree of likelihood or priority. In the event of a “leave” vote a number of alternative configurations might result including various forms of trade deal with the UK and EU members. (See here for one attempt to answer some of the economic questions below; Davy’s also released a piece on economic effects; NTMA piece on economic effects here; Alan Matthews on the implications for Irish agri-food).

a) What are the implications for border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland?

b) What are the implications for the status of UK citizens living in the Republic Ireland?

c) What are the implications for Irish citizens living in the United Kingdom?

d) Will the uncertainty surrounding the referendum affect currency volatility?

e) How will the uncertainty surrounding the referendum impact on FDI into Ireland? Does the prospect of a Brexit make Ireland a safer destination for some types of companies relative to the UK? In a “leave” scenario would Ireland be more attractive a destination than the UK for non-EU companies looking for access to the EU market?

f) How would a Brexit influence trade between Ireland and the rest of the EU?

g) What implications would Brexit have for the Scottish political situation and potential knock-on effects to the Irish economy?

h) What implications would it have for support for the EU in Ireland?

i) How would a “leave” result influence the Northern Irish economy?

j) Would a “leave” result limit mobility of Irish people to the UK?

k) What implications would a “leave” result have for wider political movements in Europe?

The small amount of publicly available analysis so far suggests the answer to most of the economic questions is that it would have a negative impact on the Irish economy largely coming through trade disruption. But it seems clear there is a lot of uncertainty in what a leave scenario would look like. As reported widely in the media there are now various groups in Ireland looking at these questions including in various state agencies and the Central Bank. It will be interesting to see this debate unfold.

Diary Date: Workshop on Well-Being and Recent Irish Economic History

Kevin Denny and I are organising a half-day workshop to look at Changes in Well-being in Ireland over the last 10 to 15 years. Obviously this has been an eventful time in Ireland and we think it would be very useful at this stage to draw together what is known about the Irish case.  Our specific aim is to consider a  wide range of possible outcomes including physical and mental health as well as subjective well-being. Moreover we want to draw on a range of approaches from epidemiology, psychological medicine and the social sciences as well as different types of data. Our intention is to have  around 7 presentations with plenty of time for discussion. The event will be held in the UCD Geary Institute on Tuesday November 17th from 12pm to 4pm. A light lunch would be provided. Further details of the talks and how to register will be provided here in due course. Suggestions on the programme still welcome.

Economics, Psychology and Policy Meetings

Since 2008 a number of us have organised an annual conference for people working at the interface of economics, psychology and related areas. Speakers have included international thought-leaders in this area including David Laibson, David Halpern, Robert Sugden, Arie Kapteyn, Ruth Byrne and John O’Doherty as well a diverse range of speakers from across economics, psychology and policy in Ireland and they have contributed to maintaining an active discussion of the potential for this area in Ireland. The next one will take place at the ESRI in Dublin on November 27th. At the previous session we agreed to organise some more adhoc meet-ups in between the events partly to disseminate new ideas and also with a view to establishing a more structured network in this area in Ireland. The first of these meetings takes place in Dublin on July 22nd organised by myself and Sean Gill. It will take place at 7pm sharp at the Roasted Brown coffee shop in Temple Bar. There will be 5 short presentations (to be listed here in the next couple of days) and some discussion about future events. Meet-ups around this area are now taking place in several cities including London and Sydney. I spoke at the Sydney event recently and it was extremely lively and led to several useful follow-ups. There are many people interested in this broad area in Dublin and Ireland more generally. This is intended to a broad forum and we welcome attendance and contribution from academics interested in exchanging ideas with a broad audience, people across different areas including students and people with business and policy interests in this area. For now we envisage the events being structured around short talks where a speaker describes briefly an idea they are working on or thinking about and potentially some suggestions for collaboration. Though there are many other event formats that could be considered. If you are attending please drop me an email at liamdelaney2011@gmail.com

Speakers:

Liam Delaney: Overview of behavioural economics, policy and business.

Michael Daly: Psychology, Self-Control and Policy

Sean Gill: Behavioural Economics and Health

Pete Lunn: Behavioural Economics and Regulation

Audience Contributions,

Q+A and Suggestions for Development of Network

QUB public policy blog

Queen’s University Belfast have just launched a new blog at http://qpol.qub.ac.uk/ (via Muiris MacCarthaigh).

QPol is the ‘front door’ for public policy engagement at Queen’s University Belfast, supporting academics and policymakers in sharing evidence-based research and ideas on the major social, cultural and economic challenges facing us regionally, nationally and beyond.

Our over-arching vision is to share the University’s independent expertise with policymakers so they can make informed decisions about the most effective and sustainable ways to tackle these challenges, now and in the future.

Our mission is to:

Facilitate the provision of independent evidence-based advice, guidance and information to policymakers, ensuring that policy formulation and law-making are informed by world-class research emerging from the University
Ensure Queen’s as it the heart of the public policy discourse, shaping and driving the debate on emerging challenges, helping policymakers to think ‘longer term’ and more strategically about the challenges facing us today
Cultivate and encourage engagement between the academic and the policymaker through effective methods of communication and mutually understandable language
Accelerate the socio-economic impact of research relating to public policy issues at Queen’s and raise awareness of the influence of the University’s research on government policy and legislation
We want to inspire intelligent debate between democratic institutions, academia and wider society in a vast array of policy areas including the economy, public health, social justice and more.

How Paternalistic Should Policymakers be?

The literature on behavioural economics has set off a very interesting debate on the extent to which policy-makers should intervene to improve outcomes in cases where individuals are potentially harming themselves but not others.

A paper by Camerer et al in 2003 put forward the case for asymmetric paternalism whereby policy could potentially help individuals who are not making rational decisions, while not infringing on others. An example is pension auto-enrolment whereby individuals procrastinating on pensions decisions are helped in the process of saving while those who genuinely do not want to take out a pension are not forced to.

Sunstein and Thaler added the idea of Libertarian Paternalism to the literature whereby policy-makers strive to improve outcomes (paternalism) while also placing a high weight on freedom to choose (libertarianism). The now-famous book Nudge is an expression of this philosophy and has had a dramatic impact on policy-makers in the US, UK and to some extent Australia and is being discussed at least in the Irish policy environment.

A big debate is ensuing around Nudge with some claiming the philosophy is too interventionist (see Sunstein’s Storr lectures for a list of these critiques and also his responses – see also a reading list I put together here).

Another line of argument is that Nudge artificially restricts the application of behavioural economics to non-mandated policy interventions. A recent Harvard Law Review piece by Bubb and Pildes examines three areas of policy (financial regulation, fuel pollution and consumer credit regulation) and makes the case that the behavioural evidence does not support soft-paternalist policies but rather a more interventionist approach. In particular they argue that there is a large tension between the evidence provided by behavioural economics and the political position being advocated by many of its adherents. In their view, the bounded rationality displayed by citizens leaves them far more open to exploitation and also far less likely to respond to soft-policies to improve their welfare. They cite an extremely interesting article by Lauren Willis in the University of Chicago Law Review, who argues that Nudges are insufficient in cases where large corporations have incentives to counteract them and she gives a detailed case-study from US financial regulation where financial companies quite easily ran around various default options embedded in consumer protection regulation. She argues that mandates and generally more active regulation is needed in many cases due to the degree of control that the regulated firms have over how to implement “nudges”.

Sunstein’s response to this is available here where he argues that it is important to respect people’s freedom of choice and that it is unclear yet that nudges are ineffective in the face of counteracting moves by vested interests. He argues that, while in some cases mandates may turn out to be neccesary and more effective, this should at least partly be an empirical question and should not ignore the importance of autonomy.

This debate is important in the Irish context. There are many areas of policy where policy objectives lead to tensions between implementation of effective policies and the autonomy of individuals to choose. In cases where individual actions lead to costs to others then traditional economics and regulation is on more solid ground. But when there is active debate about how to reduce health-damaging diet and consumption patterns, promote greater pension coverage and other policies effectively aimed at improving individual welfare through changing their behaviour then this debate is very important and interesting. It also hits against the idea that behavioural economics is an attempt to individualise wider social and economic problems. In this debate, there is a clearly interesting tussle between the interests of large companies, the decisions of boundedly rational households and the political factors that lead to the mandates of regulators. It provides an interesting and realistic way of debating policy and regulation.

New DCU MSc in Public Policy

DCU School of Law and Government have launched a new MSc in Public Policy:

The global financial crisis has exposed flaws in the policy making system in Ireland and elsewhere. Part of this relates to the technical capacity of policy makers to do effective public policy analysis. This is something recognised by the Irish state and the European Union as well as other international bodies as they attempt to increase the number of professionally qualified policy specialists working for them.

In response DCU is offering a bespoke, interdisciplinary course designed to suit the needs of a new generation of policy makers. It will be hosted in the School of Law and Government, but builds on links across the University and is a key part of a new Institute for Innovative Government (IIG).

This is a new type of professional degree – in many ways a parallel for those in the policy/government sector to an MBA in the commercial sector. It will have an intellectual base and methodological rigour that reflect the needs of a sector facing more nuanced and complex challenges.

Irish Economics and Psychology Annual Workshop

The eight annual one day conference on Economics and Psychology will be held on November 27th at the ESRI in Dublin. The purpose of these sessions is to develop the link between Economics, Psychology and cognate disciplines in Ireland. A special theme of these events is the implications of behavioural economics for public policy (see detailed reading list on this area here) though we welcome submissions across all areas of intersection of Economics and Psychology. We welcome submissions from PhD students as well as faculty and also welcome suggestions for sessions on policy and industry relevance of behavioural economics. Abstracts (200-500 words) should be submitted before September 30th to Liam.Delaney@stir.ac.uk. Suggestions or questions please send to Liam.Delaney@stir.ac.uk and/or Pete.Lunn@esri.ie Further details of wider network activities will be added here shortly. Details of the previous seven workshops are available here.

New Cormac O’Grada Book on Famine

Eating People Is Wrong, and Other Essays on Famine, Its Past, and Its Future

Famines are becoming smaller and rarer, but optimism about the possibility of a famine-free future must be tempered by the threat of global warming. That is just one of the arguments that Cormac Ó Gráda, one of the world’s leading authorities on the history and economics of famine, develops in this wide-ranging book, which provides crucial new perspectives on key questions raised by famines around the globe between the seventeenth and twenty-first centuries.

The book begins with a taboo topic. Ó Gráda argues that cannibalism, while by no means a universal feature of famines and never responsible for more than a tiny proportion of famine deaths, has probably been more common during very severe famines than previously thought. The book goes on to offer new interpretations of two of the twentieth century’s most notorious and controversial famines, the Great Bengal Famine and the Chinese Great Leap Forward Famine. Ó Gráda questions the standard view of the Bengal Famine as a perfect example of market failure, arguing instead that the primary cause was the unwillingness of colonial rulers to divert food from their war effort. The book also addresses the role played by traders and speculators during famines more generally, invoking evidence from famines in France, Ireland, Finland, Malawi, Niger, and Somalia since the 1600s, and overturning Adam Smith’s claim that government attempts to solve food shortages always cause famines.

Thought-provoking and important, this is essential reading for historians, economists, demographers, and anyone else who is interested in the history and possible future of famine.

Cormac Ó Gráda is professor emeritus of economics at University College Dublin. His books include Famine: A Short History and Black ’47 and Beyond: The Great Irish Famine in History, Economy, and Memory (both Princeton).

Irish Unemployment

I was asked to provide links and suggestions in terms of policies to respond to unemployment in Ireland. The broad fiscal and monetary causes of unemployment are discussed in many other places and it is clear that a combination of a property bubble, banking collapse and policies that have kept aggregate demand too low are all contributing factors. In considering unemployment, it is clear that more than just the short run shock to income and consumption should be considered. There  is substantial evidence that unemployment has substantial negative psychological effects that are scarring over life and also potentially self-perpetuating. Therefore it should get greater weighting in policy contexts than for models that just examine narrow financial variables. Below are some ideas on potential policy development.

(i) Bell and Blanchflower have written several papers on responding to unemployment in particular to youth unemployment. In one of the most directly relevant to policy, they list 10 potential policies for the UK environment. These are listed below. It is clear that some of these are more feasible than others in the Irish context. For example, people might find a raising of the school leaving age infeasible but a proxy policy such as the introduction of an Education Maintenance allowance is surely worth debating. Similarly, people may not think a fiscal stimulus (at least at Irish-specific level) is feasible but that does not negate the potential for examining the employment consequences of existing current and in particular capital spending. Also some of the policies below have been features of the Irish environment in various ways including increasing the number of back-to-education places.

a. The government should undertake a substantial fiscal stimulus focused on jobs, as soon as possible

b. Provide large cuts in income taxes and National Insurance Contributions aimed at the low paid and the young. For the unemployed, mortgage interest payments could also be paid by the government in the form of a loan, with the proviso that it would have to be paid back eventually.

c. Increase the education leaving age to eighteen starting in June 1st 2009 or as soon thereafter as is feasible.

d. Provide further encouragement for those in the age range 18-24 to undertake further/higher education by increasing the number of places available

e. Provide further encouragement for those in the age range 18-24 to undertake further/higher education by providing financial inducements for them to do so

f. Expand the numbers of teacher training places as soon as possible with an emphasis on training in further education

g. Do direct job creation through increased investment in the infrastructure with particular emphasis on ‘shovel ready’ projects that could start quickly.

h. Allow public sector and non-profit organizations to fill available vacancies by providing increased funding for two years

i. Temporary, limited and targeted expansion of ALMPs

j. Provide incentives to encourage the use of short-time working and job sharing as alternatives to redundancy and unemployment. These might take the form of time limited tax incentives

(ii) See the session from the 2012 Irish economy conference last year for a range of coherent ideas. The session on early childhood development is also very useful.

(iii) The role of better designed welfare and activation policies drawing from developments in the economics of evaluation is something that should be discussed further. Very few if any of the current government employment programmes have been or can be evaluated formally due to the way they are rolled out. For example, the evaluation of Jobbridge does not contain a sufficiently well-constructed control group to allow us to know what would have happened had Jobbridge not been rolled out. This is a problem across most areas of government intervention in the labour market and it hampers the ability to learn from programmes that are rolled out. The best way to achieve this would be to have someone who knows how to construct a causal evaluation assist in the process of writing the tenders for these evaluations, something that does not appear to happen at present.

(iv) I have posted here on a number of occasions about the potential role of understanding psychology in designing welfare policies and job activation. Many activation policies are based on models of human behaviour that are not grounded in empirical evidence. Denise Hawkes from UCL Institute of Education and others have been conducting very interesting behavioural trials in UK job centres (see recent Stirling conference for summary). This is early stage work but is an obvious direction for figuring out how to make government supports for people who are unemployment more effective and supportive. The redevelopment of FAS/SOLAS and the design of communication about welfare policies, education incentives and so on should integrate this literature.

(v) The key missing aspect from traditional models of job activation is the mental health effect of job loss. I have posted on this here recently  and here. The work of Professor Richard Layard in promoting development of policy around unemployment and mental health has been one of the key breakthroughs in this area over the last decade. From what I can see it has gotten not very much attention in Ireland and it would be worth debating this here a lot more with a view to assessing whether some of the ideas should be implemented.

(vi) More generally, a lot of knowledge gaps exist including basic profiles of the unemployed in Ireland such as their processes of job search. While basic profiling has been taking place, there is not a well-developed model of job search such as could be constructed from the DWP job search study. We also know very little about interlinkages between debt, housing and unemployment though the central bank research is improving the situation in this regard. In general, the data available to study job search in Ireland could be improved substantially with more engagement between policy and academics.

Mental Health and Unemployment

I posted recently on the implications of the emerging literature on the economics of mental health in the Irish context. I am currently working on some projects looking at the role of mental health in life-long economic outcomes. One of the first papers from this project is below. It shows a substantial predictive effect childhood distress throughout childhood and adolescence on later trajectories of unemployment and also evidence that this becomes particularly marked during recessions. Apologies for self-promotion but I would like to flag an event we are running in Stirling on this topic on December 5th for which there are still places if people wish to attend. Also people interested in working on this area as a researcher or PhD student please feel free to get in touch.

 Childhood psychological distress and youth unemployment: Evidence from two British cohort studies

Mark Egan, Michael Daly, and Liam Delaney

AbstractThe effect of childhood mental health on later unemployment has not yet been established. In this article we assess whether childhood psychological distress places young people at high risk of subsequent unemployment and whether the presence of economic recession strengthens this relationship. This study was based on 19,217 individuals drawn from two nationally-representative British prospective cohort studies; the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England (LSYPE) and the National Child Development Study (NCDS). Both cohorts contain rich contemporaneous information detailing the participants’ early life socioeconomic background, household characteristics, and physical health. In adjusted analyses in the LSYPE sample (N = 10,232) those who reported high levels of distress at age 14 were 2 percentage points more likely than those with low distress to be unemployed between ages 16 and 21. In adjusted analyses of the NCDS sample (N = 8985) children rated as having high distress levels by their teachers at age 7 and 11 were 3 percentage points more likely than those with low distress to be unemployed between ages 16 and 23. Our examination of the 1980 UK recession in the NCDS cohort found the difference in average unemployment level between those with high versus low distress rose from 2.6 pct points in the pre-recession period to 3.9 points in the post-recession period. These findings point to a previously neglected contribution of childhood mental health to youth unemployment, which may be particularly pronounced during times of economic recession. Our findings also suggest a further economic benefit to enhancing the provision of mental health services early in life.

In the Irish context, the Growing Up in Ireland  study has been conducting research on children and adolescent welfare and health and will (subject to following the group up) be able to examine these findings in the Irish context. As said in the previous post, it is a good time to have a debate about the extent to which enough resources are invested in the development of children in Ireland early in life and particularly to examine outcomes such as resilience and mental health that have not traditionally crossed into economic analysis. The extent to which public investments in mental health remediation services throughout childhood and adolescence might produce a long-lasting flow of psychological and financial benefits is a question that has not been given a great deal of evidence-based debate in the Irish context (with notable exceptions including this excellent project by colleagues at UCD).  The emergence of large scale aging cohort study data in the form of the TCD-led TILDA project is another avenue that is starting to show the linkages between mental/physical well-being and economic outcomes throughout life.

Economics and Psychology Workshop

The seventh annual one day conference on Economics and Psychology, co-organised by researchers from UCD, ESRI and NUIM, will be held on October 31st in the UCD Geary Institute. The purpose of these sessions is to develop the link between Economics, Psychology and cognate disciplines in Ireland. A special theme of these events is the implications of behavioural economics for public policy though the workshops have covered work across all areas of intersection of Economics and Psychology. Programmes from the previous six events are here. We welcome students, academics, policy-makers, industry representatives and others with an interest in this area. Registration is free of charge but you should sign up on the link below if you are attending. Other questions about the event can be addressed to Liam.Delaney@stir.ac.uk

Sign up to attend here 

The programme is available below.

Continue reading “Economics and Psychology Workshop”

Mental Health and the Irish Economy

A long literature has examined the role of  economic factors in promoting well-being. This has been a particularly active area for the last decade or so in Economics (summary of recent workshop we did on this topic with readings etc.,). Lately, a major topic of interest has been the role that mental health plays in producing economic outcomes at individual level. For example, an influential 2011 PNAS paper pointed to dramatic long-run economic effects of early life mental health conditions (see my review paper with one of the authors).  Richard Layard has called mental health the new frontier of labour economics and argued for mass expansion of mental health research and treatments. A big focus of the discussion has been the idea that mental health has been systematically discounted compared to physical health conditions in terms of health funding. Various proposals have been put forward to enhance the profile of mental health service in the UK (the recent speech by Nick Clegg one of most prominent).

A few major points to come from this literature and worthy of wide debate in the Irish context include:

The utility losses (for want of a better phrase) of mental health conditions are enormous even outside of effects on productivity and income (e.g. paper here). The interaction of this with physical conditions is also very important. Chronic pain is one particularly important area that should have greater priority in debates on health care (see Alan Krueger on this here).

Childhood mental health has dramatic effects on later life economic outcomes. There is a strong rationale to increase funding for child mental health research and services.  Many childhood mental health problems are practically ignored for the purpose of policy-making. For example, there exists almost no evidence on the long-run effects of prescribing stimulants to children diagnosed with ADHD with recent papers not exactly painting a glowing account of their usefulness (e.g. paper by Janet Currie here).  If you reflect on it, it really is an odd state of affairs that such important questions are neglected. The role of school mental health services for primary school children and teenagers is another area that is important to debate more given the hugely predictive effect of early mental health on life-long trajectories.

Lord Layard and others have argued for a substantial expansion of talk-therapies and a wider roll-out across society (short article outlining this view here; see also Layard and Clark’s recently released book Thrive). In the context of high rates of unemployment still in Ireland and in particular high rates of youth unemployment, this is worth discussing a lot more in the Irish context. Developing funding streams for large-scale referrals for brief talk-therapies is one of the most concrete suggestions to come from the recent literature.

There is a strong rationale for examining the proportion of health funding allocated to mental health in Ireland. It is widely documented  that mental health services in Ireland are given less priority compared to other countries (e.g. recent report here also O’Shea and Kennelly report).

Guest Post on Higher Education Participation

GUEST POST: Darragh Flannery (UL)

In the context of the media coverage related to spatial differences in higher education participation (as outlined in this HEA report) some in this forum may be interested in on-going research conducted by myself, in conjunction with colleagues in NUIG and the ESRI. Our findings to date have been published in the Economic & Social Review (paper available here) and Applied Economics (paper available here). A brief summary of some of our findings and my thoughts on the issue are below. It is worth mentioning that the data used in our research comes from the School Leaver’s Survey (SLS) in 2007 (the SLS was unfortunately discontinued after this year). While our data is obviously dated, I would be confident that the conclusions of both papers are still relevant and possibly even more pronounced today.

The first strand of our research (ESR paper) examined the impact of travel distance to nearest higher education institute on overall higher education participation, controlling for factors such as CAO points, gender etc..  Specifically, we wanted to see how the impact of travel distance may vary according to social class. The results showed that travel distance has a significantly negative impact on participation for those from lower social classes and that this impact grows stronger as distance increases. We also found that the distance effects are most pronounced for lower ability students from these social backgrounds and make some policy recommendations.

The second strand of our research (Applied Economics paper) took a slightly different angle and looked at the impact of travel distance and social class on the type of higher education a young person in Ireland may pursue. So instead of looking at the potential impact that spatial factors might have on whether a young person goes to higher education or not, we wanted to look at how these factors may influence whether students go to a university/non-university, pursue a level 8 degree or not, and the field of study they choose. We found some evidence that spatial factors played a role, but social class was found to be a more powerful determinant. For example, even with the same CAO points and similar geographical accessibility to a university, those from a ‘low’ social class had virtually zero chance of pursing a medical degree compared to someone from a ‘high’ social class. Again we discussed some potential policy options, such as a more flexible higher education grant system and consideration of more affirmative action policies such as social class quotas.

Given the fact that it did not feature at all in the previous National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education 2008-2013, it is good to see spatial accessibility and its relationship with social class being mentioned by the latest HEA report as a possible driver of variation in higher education participation. However, I do think it is important that the debate does not stop at the rather broad view of the impact this may have on going to higher education or not. Instead, I would think it is important that we delve deeper and investigate more specific outcomes such as the impact social class/spatial factors may have on more specific outcomes such as field of study and longer term labour market outcomes. This is especially relevant in the context of income inequality and social mobility issues.

Behavioural Science and Public Policy

I have posted here on a number of occasions about the relevance of the growing literature on behavioural economics and public policy for the Irish context. This post updates this with some new material and I hope people don’t mind if I draw on some from previous posts.

Increasingly, behavioural science is being used as a term to encapsulate the integration of psychological factors into understanding economic decision-making. This is basically an attempt to preserve the phrase “behavioural economics” to refer to explanations with explicit utility-theoretic foundations and also to avoid a lot of work from psychology simply being repackaged as “behavioural economics”. It is not a wholly satisfactory compromise as the phrase “behavioural science” means different things to different people  but it is certainly helping to form a shared set of ideas and methodologies and looks likely to continue as the main way of  describing this work.

There are a number of reasons for the explosion of interest in this area including the award of the Nobel prize to Daniel Kahneman in 2002 and the adoption of the book “Nudge” by the Obama and Cameron administrations. I think also the sense of purely neo-classical microeconomics being bound up with the regulatory failures surrounding the financial crisis is also fueling an appetite for more realistic accounts of decision-making. It is likely that a lot of what is now called economics will increasingly move towards a disciplinary more blurry field in particular in areas like financial regulation.

Some recent very useful overviews of this area include: Shafir’s Behavioural Foundations of Public Policy is excellent; Sunstein’s lengthy “Empirically-Informed Regulation” provides a strong overview; Nudge is obviously important; a recent paper by Brigitte Madrian outlines the behavioural approach to policy; this excellent short paper by Beshears et al makes the case for the limitation of revealed preferences and the need for other mechanisms; one of the researchers in our group has put together a data-base of studies employing what can loosely be called “Nudges” in various areas of policy; Publications of the Behavioural Insights Team in the Cabinet Office are available here;  I have also put together a fairly detailed reading list on behavioural economics and public policy, including legal and ethical issues; The Brookings Institute publication “Policy and Choice: Public Finance through the lense of behavioural economics” is one of the best available introductions to this area.

In terms of why Irish policy-makers should care about this area, below is not intended to be exhaustive but is an attempt to summarise the main areas.

1. The use of “nudges” to encourage saving is the most developed behavioural policy literature. This has reached national policy significance in the roll-out of pension auto-enrolment in the UK. The Irish pension framework  was to see the entire private sector begin to be auto-enrolled in 2014 but subject to an economic recovery that has not yet materialised sufficiently. The psychology behind how people react to default settings in pensions is very interesting with a lot of opportunities and threats, among the latter the possibility that people will anchor too much to the default contribution and under-save as well as the possibility that naive consumers will simply be ripped off by providers who can charge higher fees with this less savvy group.

2. The role of behavioural science in financial regulation is a key question. The Financial Conduct Authority has been exploring this area actively. This excellent FCA occasional paper examines the potential implications of behavioural economics for financial regulation. In the US context, this very interesting report by Barr, Mullainathan and Shafir from 2008 outlines a new approach to consumer regulation based partly on the notion of “sticky defaults” whereby firms would be required to default people into the most desirable option based on their characteristics and only move them if they make choices following being provided with clear information. Such models are discussed in relation to two markets fraught with behavioural bias and consumer exploitation, namely credit cards and mortgages. The document also sets out proposals for changing the incentives of brokers.

As noted in another post, this literature is leading to a lot of very interesting questions for financial regulation that are hard to ask in a neo-classical setting. Below are some examples but obviously a small subset.

Should credit card variable and teaser rates be banned or at least taken out of the regular offers made to consumers?

Should mortgage providers be forced to disclose better deals available to their customers?

Should pay-day lenders be granted full access to the Irish market? If so, how do you regulate them?

Should auto-enrolment proceed in Ireland, what provisions should be put in place so that companies do not exploit naïve consumers by charging fees well in excess of regular rates?

Do behavioural biases prevent annuities markets from functioning optimally?

3. The implications of behavioural science for the design of welfare and taxation policies is another active area with applications across the Irish policy sphere in everything from structuring environmental taxes to design of incentive systems to encourage employment. Cass Sunstein, who is one of the main figures in this area, recently released a new book called “Simpler: The Future of Government“. It outlines an approach to government that emphasises making regulations, laws and taxes less confusing and more robust.

4. The search for alternative measures of welfare and social progress is a big concern of the emerging literature (see summary and readings from recent conference on this). The Stiglitz-Sen commission is becoming a standard reference on this topic and it is pretty comprehensive. Understanding how we go from the empirical literature in this area into meaningful indicators is an important direction for this literature. As well as interest in measuring well-being, there is growing interest in the bidirectionality of well-being and economic activity with a lot of recent work looking at impact of mental health in particular on economic functioning. (See Layard: Mental Health: The Frontier of Labour Economics). Related to this, an increasing literature has been examining the economic importance of ensuring good child mental health. This literature is helping us to understand better the interplay between poor child mental health and later economic outcomes. A recent PNAS paperby Goodman, Joyce and Smith gives a good indication of the type of research being conducted in this area. This is an extremely important area of research at the interface of psychology and economics.

5. A lot of recent research has begun to examine more closely the mechanics of what happens during job search from a more psychological perspective. Some of this research is explained in accessible form in this Brookings Institute publication. There is no question that traditional labour supply models are not a complete guide for understanding the behaviour of people who have been laid off and the literature on job activation needs badly more cross-disciplinary work to understand what is shaping behaviour and what environmental changes people might respond to.

6.  James Heckman and colleagues have been working on a large programme to integrate personality psychology and a theory of human development into economics. This is extremely important in terms of providing a theoretical and empirical basis for allocation of spending in health and education. Many of these papers are available on Heckman’s IDEAS webpage. Colleagues in Geary are involved in a collaboration looking at early childhood development. Some of these ideas are presented in accessible form on this website.

7. Prompted by Frank Barry in the comments, this paper by Peter Lunn at ESRI is a good overview of potential behavioural factors in the banking crisis. He has also published a number of other papers relevant to the above points (available here).

There are clearly several empirical, ethical and legal issues with the development of this agenda across all of these areas. The enthusiasm for randomised controlled trials in this area clearly has to be tempered with an awareness of their limitations (e.g. here). Furthermore, the extent to which interest-groups constrain the types of policies that emerge will be interesting to observe.

Along with colleagues, I have organised an annual workshop on economics/psychology in Ireland and it will take place again on October 31st in the Geary Institute (sign-up page here). Anyone interested in this area is welcome to attend.

Should Scotland be an independent country?

On 18th September, Scottish residents will vote on the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?“.

There has obviously been a vociferous debate in Scotland on the pros and cons of both options. As well as national identity arguments, the Yes campaign has pointed to such advantages as being able to set an independent defence policy, more competitive business taxation policies, fairer social welfare policies, retaining universality of policies such as personal care and student fees and many others (see details of the case for Independence here). The No campaign, in particular, has highlighted the benefits of being part of a larger union of countries and the risks involved in transition including potential for a lengthy readmission process to the EU and NATO, prolonged currency uncertainty, loss of shared institutions and so on (See the Better Together website).

Prof John Curtice has been keeping track of all opinion polls on the issue on this website

At present, the favoured outcome from pollsters and bookies is a No vote. I have co-authored a couple of reports on the potential for risk aversion to be playing one key role in the decision (here here and here).

I am opening this thread for people who want to comment on the referendum perhaps in particular the relevance of the last 100 years or so of Irish experience for Scotland.

Survey on Economy in Ireland

Seamus Power, a PhD student at the University of Chicago, is conducting a short survey on the economic situation in Ireland. The link is here if you are willing to fill it out. There is also an email address for the study if you have questions or comments.

“You will be asked to read a very short narrative and asked some questions based on it. Participation is voluntary and is expected to take 5 minutes.”

One day conference on Economics and Psychology

The seventh annual one day conference on Economics and Psychology, co-organised by researchers from UCD, ESRI and NUIM, will be held on October 31st in the UCD Geary Institute. The purpose of these sessions is to develop the link between Economics, Psychology and cognate disciplines in Ireland. A special theme of these events is the implications of behavioural economics for public policy though we welcome submissions across all areas of intersection of Economics and Psychology. We welcome submissions from PhD students as well as faculty and also welcome suggestions for sessions on policy and industry relevance of behavioural economics. Programmes from the previous six events are here. Abstracts (200-500 words) should be submitted before September 30th. Suggestions or questions please send to Liam.Delaney@stir.ac.uk

Betting Odds and Election Outcomes

My colleague David Bell has a short paper on how opinion polls and gambling odds are predicting the outcome of the Scottish Referendum. He notes there are a number of potential limitations in using odds as unbiased predictors of outcomes particularly if markets are very thin. There is also obviously a good literature on prediction markets more generally and their relation to the Efficient Markets Hypothesis (see, for example, Robin Hanson’s excellent blogposts on this). With all that in mind, it was tempting to see what odds are available for the next general election in Ireland. One prominent alliteratively named firm has odds for the next general election as being (as of 5pm 29th May): FF/FG coalition 5/6; FG/Lab coalition 7/2; FF/SF coalition 6/1 and so on. This seems pretty consistent with other firms. Would be interested in hearing what people make of this.

White paper on universal health insurance

I am a few days late on this but the government White paper on Universal Health Insurance is an important document and worth a thread here. The Irish Times have a summary here.

Addendum:

Some links that might be helpful

The White Paper itself:
http://health.gov.ie/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/White-Paper-Final-version-1-April-2014.pdf

Newspaper articles:

Here is a basic article from the Irish Times giving the details of the white paper:
http://www.irishtimes.com/news/health/universal-health-insurance-what-is-it-all-about-1.1747201

Column by Muiris Houston arguing that it will never be implemented:
http://www.irishtimes.com/news/health/six-reasons-why-the-universal-health-care-plan-is-likely-to-fail-1.1749314

Piece by Billy Kelleher on the cost of universal health insurance:
http://www.irishtimes.com/news/health/universal-health-insurance-will-drive-up-costs-for-many-1.1702639

Irish Independent article on opposition to the proposal:
http://www.independent.ie/lifestyle/health/opposition-grows-to-plan-for-universal-healthcare-30161443.html

Paul Cullen in the Irish Times: Dutch health insurance costing 23.5% of income
http://www.irishtimes.com/news/health/dutch-health-insurance-costing-23-5-of-income-1.1752380

Universal Healthcare: Trick or Treat? (www.irishhealth.com) by Catherine Wilkinson and Declan Brennan:
http://www.irishhealth.com/article.html?id=19208

Article from http://www.thejournal.ie where GPs argue that they were not adequately consulted:
http://www.thejournal.ie/gps-say-they-were-not-adequately-consulted-universal-health-insurance-paper-1394547-Apr2014/

Fianna Fáil opposition:
http://www.thejournal.ie/micheal-martin-fianna-fail-ard-fheis-speech-1376437-Mar2014/

Article from http://www.thejournal.ie on opposition from health workers:
http://www.thejournal.ie/uhi-impact-groups-gps-1395368-Apr2014/

Journal articles:

Briggs, A. (2013). How changes to Irish healthcare financing are affecting universal health coverage. Health Policy, Volume 113, Issue 1 , Pages 45-49.
http://www.healthpolicyjrnl.com/article/S0168-8510(13)00211-X/abstract

McKee et al (2013). Universal Health Coverage: A Quest for All Countries But under Threat in Some.Value in Health (Elsevier Science). Supplement, Vol. 16 Issue s1, pS39-S45.

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1098301512041526

Behavioural Economics and Regulation

I have blogged before on the potential applications of behavioural economics to public policy in Ireland. A lot of attention has been given to policies that change individual behaviour in potentially welfare promoting directions (See Tim Harford’s summary of this in the FT). An interesting question is the implications of moving to a model of consumers with bounded rationality and self-control for regulation and competition policy. A number of recent documents in the UK and US are relevant for this.

This excellent FCA occasional paper examines the potential implications of behavioural economics for financial regulation. It should be noted that “nudging” is a subset of the policies that might follow behavioural market tests. Many of the potential policies discussed in this document are hard interventions rather than soft nudges. They also extend across regulators. For example, on page 45 they outline recent moves by Ofcom to ban autorenewal of internet contracts and OFT to ban certain types of gym membership contracts.

In some senses a more radical document by Barr, Mullainathan and Shafir from 2008 outlines a new approach to consumer regulation based partly on the notion of “sticky defaults” whereby firms would be required to default people into the most desirable option based on their characteristics and only move them if they make choices following being provided with clear information. Such models are discussed in relation to two markets fraught with behavioural bias and consumer exploitation, namely credit cards and mortgages. The document also sets out proposals for changing the incentives of brokers.

Far from the collection of isolated “nudges” that forms much of the public debate around behavioural economics, what has unfolded in recent years is a body of theoretical and empirical work that simply gives better predictions and foundations for regulation than what preceded. There are clearly many insights in this literature that have implications for Irish regulators and are worth debating further.

Examples of the applied questions raised by the recent literature include:

Should credit card variable and teaser rates be banned or at least taken out of the regular offers made to consumers?

Should mortgage providers be forced to disclose better deals available to their customers?

Should pay-day lenders be granted full access to the Irish market? If so, how do you regulate them?

Should autoenrolment proceed in Ireland, what provisions should be put in place so that companies do not exploit naïve consumers by charging fees well in excess of regular rates?

Do behavioural biases prevent annuities markets from functioning optimally?

Clearly, many of the above questions are more than just empirical questions or issues of economic theory. They also relate to political issues and wider issues of freedom of choice. Policies such as pension autoenrolment have proved quite popular as they are, in some sense, a win-win in encouraging savings among non-traditional savers and providing extra customers for financial providers. However many of the above policies are likely to be far more contested by interest groups and it will be good to have an open debate on their merits.

Notes:

A reading list from my research blog here.

A short blogpost I prepared summarising the FCA document with some other readings on regulatory and consumer exploitation issues.

Pete Lunn at ESRI has written about policy implications in a number of documents (see recent OECD review paper here).

Economists Letter on Minimum Wages

This New York Times article discusses a recent letter signed by over 500 economists arguing against the proposed increases in minimum wages in the US.

The fact that the letter itself was initiated by a party with a vested interest has generated discussion online. I will leave people to make their own minds up on that.

More interesting is why so many economists have a firm belief that minimum wage increases are a bad thing. Aside from the toy models we present to students to introduce economic principles, where is the firm empirical evidence that would lead over 500 professionals to sign their name to something like this?

As this 1982 NBER survey shows, pretty much nothing was known empirically about the employment impact of minimum wages up to that stage despite a substantial body of theoretical work. A body of empirical work that followed generally has found no effects or even positive employment effects. The most famous paper directly estimating minimum wage effects on unemployment is this Card and Krueger AER paper that finds positive employment effects. It has been cited over 1400 times and debated over and again. Another highly cited UK study finds no adverse employment effects.

There is no credible empirical study documenting increases in unemployment following changes in minimum wage legislation. Nor are there credible empirical studies linking temporal and spatial variation in unemployment to minimum wage legislation. Simply type “minimum wages unemployment” into google scholar and sample the papers from peer-reviewed journals that come up. You will find some papers showing that minimum wage effects on unemployment result from highly stylised theoretical models but no papers in high-level peer reviewed journals showing a clear negative aggregate employment effect. Please feel free to link to some credible empirical evidence in the comments if you think I am overdoing the case. Here, for example, is a meta-analysis of UK studies finding no employment effect. With the empirical literature in mind, another group of economists have signed a letter in support of minimum wage increases.

Obviously people outside of economics will cite this as another case of economists not being able to agree. But the difference is the second group can point to empirical evidence. It is baffling as to where the first group derive their confidence from.