December 31, 2016

Reasons to be Cheerful — 1, 2, 3

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I'll spend this New Year Eve with old friends. To keep our spirits up, we agreed some self-denying rules. Here are three things that we will not talking about around the dinner table:

  • Brexit.
  • Donald Trump.
  • Climate change.

This was not my suggestion. And in some ways you might think this would be hard on us, for we are all interested in the world of politics and policy, and those of us who will gather would all have something to say on such matters.

Yet, when it was put to me, it made immediate sense. I recalled a discovery made a few years ago by Angus Deaton. He was working with Gallup surveys of very large numbers of Americans (Deaton 2012). In these surveys, carried out in 2008 and 2009, respondens were asked to evaluate their own subjective well being. It turned out that their responses were strongly affected by whether or not the respondents had just been asked about their views of America's then-current political leaders. The effect of being asked these political questions was to lower the subject's reported well being, compared with others who were asked the questions in a different order. The negative effect was large -- an amount similar to the effect on well being of a major recession, such as the one that was actually taking place at that time.

I concluded that there was a scientific basis for avoiding talk of politics in everyday social interaction. If we all did so, we would feel the improvement.

More recently I found that Deaton has published a reassessment (Deaton and Stone 2016). This work is based on data from a more recent period. The result is a new finding, more complicated than before. As it now turns out, not everyone is depressed by being reminded of politics. Rather, people are depressed if (and only if) their own answers are depressing. Most likely this was already the case back in 2008 and 2009, but at that time there was not much optimism around, and most Americans disliked most of their leaders, so the general feeling that the country was on the wrong track overwhelmed the responses of the optimistic few in the Gallup survey sample.

To relate this to our own national context, we have just had a referendum that split our country into two nearly-equal halves. Suppose you belong to those that think Brexit will prove to be a detriment to our economy and society. When asked your view of British politics facing Brexit, your evaluation of your own life will go down. But if you think that Britain outside the European Union will be a magical success, then being asked your opinion will leave your personal mood as it was. It's only if you think things are going badly that being asked about politics will send your mood down.

Which has implications. One implication is that not all talk of politics is a downer. But when the country is evenly divided, and political issues are put on the table, half the people will find reason in politics to feel bad about their lives.

Another implication. There's a grain of truth in the Daily Mail tag "Remoaners." When reminded that we lost the referendum vote, those of us who preferred to remain in the European Union now feel down. It doesn't make us wrong, but it does make us depressed.

Until tomorrow, therefore, no more politics.

For tonight, at least, a Happy New Year to all my readers!


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I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).

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  • Mark, An excellent piece and great rebuttal. Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat … by Mark Allen on this entry
  • Prof. Harrison: Thank you so much for your very kind, complete and prompt response (and on a bank ho… by Froghole on this entry
  • @Froghole I understand your perspective, but I don't agree. You suggest two things (1) EU membership… by Mark Harrison on this entry
  • Many thanks for this excellent piece. I don't deny that Brexit will have a corrosive effect. However… by Froghole on this entry
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