Does marriage lead to happiness?

I’m attending two weddings this weekend, from which I hope two long and happy marriages will result. Having no insights of my own to add to the topic of marriage and happiness, I took another look at the subjective well-being literature on the subject. As I noted in a Catallaxy post eighteen months ago, this area of research is surprisingly controversial, with one prominent happiness researcher denying that marriage brings most people any lasting additional happiness.

One point that is not in dispute is that, at any given time, married people are happier than single people. I had a look at the most recent Australian survey to ask about happiness, the 2005 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, which finds the same relativities persistently found across time and around the world.

78% of married people rate themselves as 7 or above on 0-10 scale, compared to 63% of the never married. People in de facto relationships were similar to married people in the proportion in the normal 7+ range, but married people were considerably more likely to be in the very happy 9-10 range, 32% compared to 21% among de facto couples (even though you would think that married people would have had longer to grow bored of each other). Separated people are the least happy – 53% at 7 or above, but they get over it, as divorced people are about as happy as the never-married singles.

One reason for some initial doubt that marriage has the widely-assumed happiness benefits is that average happiness has been stable over time. Though it has fluctuated a little between surveys over sixty years, it has fluctuated without trend. Clive Hamilton and many others have seized on this as evidence that greater income does not make you happy. But if marriage makes people happier, or conversely non-marital states make you less happy, shouldn’t the declining share of the adult population who are married have led to a declining average level of happiness?
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Blog ads

A few days ago my excellent blog host, Jacques Chester, asked if I was prepared to be a guinea pig for blog text advertising. Functions like Google’s AdSense must be one of the few blogging things he hasn’ t tried.

I wasn’t keen on the idea, but said I would see what other people thought. My case against:

* Though it might seem strange given how boring the appearance of my old blog was, now that I have one that looks nice I have an aesthetic objection to the added clutter of ads. At least in Catallaxy’s case the ads are also pushing down the screen more relevant things such as the subject areas and the blogroll.

* I don’t really believe that the ads would be of any interest to my readers – partly due to flaws in Google’s technology. As I write, Catallaxy is promoting a Bob Dylan concert in Paris, Jeep Cherokees, and home sales in the Victorian town of Cherokee. The Dylan ad was the result of this post on Dylan meeting the Pope; the Cherokee ads were triggered by this post of Jason’s on the Native American Cherokees. Clearly this system is not going to put the human judgment found in advertising agencies out of business just yet. Parkos’s comments are baffling enough without readers having to wonder over the ads as well.

* Advertising is necessary to keep most forms of media free or cheap to consumers, but that doesn’t apply to blogs nearly as much, and not at all to this blog. The upkeep costs are minimal. Jacques won’t even take up my offer to cover the money that is being spent.

* Blogging is a hobby, and I would really rather not mix hobbies and commerce.

As Jacques would still like to know more about blog advertising, perhaps a commenter with experience of it can fill him in?

Reading people by their books

Some say that they can read other people ‘like a book’. But you can also read other people by their books. I always find a bookshelf analysis a useful way of getting acquainted with someone without having to ask too many questions. A shelf full of Noam Chomsky tomes? I’d better avoid discussing politics. Books on spirituality or lives of religious figures? Nobody could read more than one or two of them without being a believer, so skip religion. Too many books with the author’s name in large, gold-embossed letters? Better keep the conversation on mass culture topics. I noted but tactfully said nothing when I found a copy of Fat Is a Feminist Issue on the shelves of a female colleague who was not quite as slim as she once was.

Though helpful, the bookshelf examination is not a perfect analytical tool. A 2005 survey found that one in three residents of London and south-east England had bought a book ‘solely to look intelligent’. So if I was using books as a proxy for human characteristics I could wrongly come to the conclusion that a person was intelligent, because he or she had a book that an intelligent person would buy. And now another British survey finds that:

Fifty-five per cent of those polled for the survey said they buy books for decoration, and have no intention of actually reading them.

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To whom does the mud stick?

Did any of the Brian Burke mud stick to Kevin Rudd? This morning’s polls suggest that the voters don’t entirely buy Rudd’s version of events. According to the SMH, reporting this morning’s ACNielsen poll:

53 per cent thinking he had been “partly truthful” in explaining himself, and 10 per cent feeling he had been “completely untruthful”. Twenty-four per cent thought he had been “completely truthful”. …

But the poll found 83 per cent of voters said their view of Mr Rudd was unaffected by the Burke affair.

Rudd’s approval rating was up 2 percentage points on the last ACNielsen poll a month ago, while his disapproval rating was up 4 percentage points. So perhaps the attack helped sway more of the previously uncommitted toward a negative view of the Opposition Leader. But did it hurt the PM even more? His approval rating was down 3 percentage points, and his disapproval rating up 5 percentage points. There is precedent for the mud sticking more to the person throwing it than the target. As I argued last November, NSW Opposition Leader Peter Debnam’s unsubstantiated attacks on Bob Debus pretty clearly backfired on Debnam.

The trouble with the attack on Rudd was that it was the kind of manufactured scandal on which the press gallery thrives, but which must leave the punters scratching or even shaking their heads. There was no allegation of any real wrong-doing, just guilt by association. It looked like we were seeing a panicked government as much as an Opposition Leader with poor judgment. The whole thing collapsed into farce with Ian Campbell’s resignation and the tenuous (in the extreme) connections made between his successor David Johnston and Burke, via his shares in companies which had dealings with Burke.

This is not to say that mud-slinging never works. But unless the evidence is good, there is a real chance that it will harm the slinger as much or more than the target.

Are we really short of discretionary time?

Even after all the recent work-family balance hype, I still found this comment from Graham Bell in Mark Bahnisch’s good-bye-for-now-because-I-am-too-busy post jaw-droppingly preposterous:

You have here touched on two aspects of life in 2007’s Australia:

[i] The rapidly worsening lack of discretionary time for so many people now, even for pensioners/retirees and the unemployed.

Gosh, imagine how pressed they might be if they actually had to work for money 40-50 hours a week, plus do all the other things that disproportionately fall to those in paid work, such as raising kids and keeping voluntary organisations going. Even for those who genuinely do have a lot on, there is an important distinction made by Michael Bittman, Robert Goodin and others between discretionary time and free time (pdf).

Discretionary time is what we have left after we’ve done enough to earn money, perform household chores and engage in sufficient personal care (eg sleeping). Admittedly, some of the arguments as to what constitutes enough are contentious; but the overall point is a strong one: because many people choose to do more than the minimum necessary across a range of generally essential activities their free time, the time in which they have no commitments, is much less than their discretionary time. Using a 1992 Australian time use survey, they estimate that discretionary time is two to three times as long as free time.
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Why is plagiarism bad?

One curious feature of both academia and journalism is that copying without attribution something written by somebody else that is correct is a far worse sin than publishing something that is one’s own work but entirely wrong. Yet from the point-of-view of the reader, which is the larger problem? Many of us rely heavily on the reporting and research of others in forming our views, and an erroneous fact has much more serious consequences for the soundness of our opinions than a mistaken attribution.

These strong norms against plagiarism, as Richard Posner argues in his The Little Book of Plagiarism, are a modern phenomenon, with great writers like Shakespeare freely copying from others, though often improving on the original in the process. In his time, there were pragmatic reasons for plagiarism. When plays were censored it was safer to re-use old material than to create new words that might be censored. Also, without modern mass production of cultural works copying brought ideas to wider audiences.

Posner sees the rise of individualism as important: ‘each of us thinks that our own contribution to society is unique, and so deserves public recognition, which plagiarism clouds.’ This has potential economic consequences, as authors (as I noted earlier in the week) become brands. The original author may be disadvantaged in selling his or her work by those using their words and gaining sales instead; the plagiarist may create a false brand, which consumers cannot rely on when considering whether to buy their subsequent works.

But clearly it isn’t just about the money. There is outrage surrounding plagiarism even when it has no financial consequences. And it doesn’t really have much to do with protecting consumers, who may be only vaguely aware of the author’s identity when, for example, reading newspapers and magazines or watching a TV show. It has far more to do with the pride of authors in wanting to take credit for their work, and in our interest in character – if plagiarists deceive us about authorship, can we trust them at all? (though this matters less with fiction than non-fiction).
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A novel way of selling fiction

1867, Canada: as winter tightens its grip on the isolated settlement of Dove River, a man is brutally murdered and a seventeen year old boy disappears. Tracks leaving the dead man’s cabin head north towards the forest and the tundra beyond. In the wake of such violence, people are drawn to the township – journalists, Hudson Bay Company men, trappers, traders – but do they want to solve the crime, or exploit it? In this stunning debut, Stef Penney deftly weaves adventure, suspense, revelation and subtle humour to create a book that is at once an exhilarating thriller, a panoramic novel, a study of the human condition and a keen murder mystery.

Does that make you want to read The Tenderness of the Wolves? The problem with fiction, as I’ve noted before, is that if you want a good reading experience there is no strong reason to buy something by a ‘debut’ writer like Stef Penney. There are already more novels by authors with good reputations than most of us could read in a lifetime; and even better most of them can be bought cheaply in second-hand bookstores. So why take a risk on first-time novelist based just on the publisher’s hype (‘stunning’, ‘exhilarating’, ‘panoramic’)?

Penney’s publisher, Murdoch Books, is trying to get around this by adopting a sales pitch I don’t recall seeing for books before: a money-back guarantee (pdf). Superficially, this opens them to reader dishonesty – you could enjoy the book and still get your $29.95 back, because Murdoch isn’t going to bother proving that you did in fact like it. It’s not like a manufactured good for which there can be objective tests as to whether or not it functions properly.

But in reality it is probably a shrewd move, since a money-back guarantee is a strong signal by the publisher of confidence in its product, but in practice even people who don’t like the book aren’t likely to bother recovering their $29.95. To get it, you have to send the book to Sydney, which would cost a few dollars in postage and packaging, do it by the end of June, and wait up to 8 weeks for your cheque to arrive. How much hassle are people prepared to go through to get $29.95 in two months? For most us, not much.

The money-back guarantee won’t affect my fussiness with fiction – what’s valuable to me is not the $30 but my reading time – so I will stick with my usual method of relying on the opinions of reviewers I trust. But for the budget-constrained reader it is a sales pitch that might just help Stef Penney overcome those first-time novelist doubts.

A greenhouse route to nuclear power?

According to The Australian this morning, reporting on the latest Newspoll:

FEAR of global warming has dramatically reversed Australians’ attitude to nuclear energy, with more people supporting nuclear power for the first time. In the past four months, support for nuclear power has risen from just 35 per cent to 45 per cent, and opposition has fallen in the same time from 50 per cent to 40 per cent.

Actually, what this poll shows is that if you put the magic words ‘greenhouse gas emissions’ in the question you increase support for nuclear power. Back in June last year, Roy Morgan Research asked the question:

Do you approve or disapprove of nuclear power plants replacing coal, oil, and gas power plants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

And found that 49% approved and 37% disapproved. In December 2006, Newspoll, after reminding respondents that there was a nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights but no nuclear power station in Australia, asked:

Are you personally in favour or against nuclear power stations being built in Australia?

The result was 38% in favour and 51% against.

In the latest Newspoll, the question changed:

Are you personally in favour or against the development of a nuclear power industry in Australia, as one of a range of energy solutions to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

The result was 45% in favour and 40% against – closer to the June 2006 Roy Morgan survey that also mentioned greenhouse than to the December 2006 Newspoll that did not. This indicates that there is a section of the electorate that is willing to accept the logic of their views on global warming, and change their otherwise negative view of nuclear energy. But this is still dangerous political territory for the Prime Minister, with overall support below 50% and 11% of Coalition voters ‘strongly against’ a nuclear power industry.

8 March update: A new Morgan Poll confirms that opinion is stable on this issue, with recent debates having no net effect.

Are private school parents discriminated against?

less policy discrimination against private schools than in the past means that school choice is more affordable than it once was

My analysis last week.

…I do admire the particular locution you’ve used – “less policy discrimination” is a fine argument-begging way of saying “more subsidisation”.

Derrida Derider’s response.

I was wondering whether anyone would pick up on the way I put that point. On the federal government’s school funding policy, students at private schools get subsidies at somewhere between 13.7% and 70% of the government school rate, depending on the (presumed) socio-economic status of parents. So parents choosing private schools are financially treated less favourably than parents choosing government schools. Why is this not discrimination?

Often governments give more to people who have less, as they do with private schools. This is generally not seen as discriminatory, but rather making up for the disadvantage experienced by one group. But on this logic, well-off families who send their kids to government schools should receive less as well. According to the ABS, 8% of kids at government schools are from high-income households, while 16% of kids at independent schools are from low-income households. So the ‘to each according to need’ is not being consistently applied in school policy, and is only applied at all for private schools.

Most private schools are at least nominally religious, and as I noted in my post last week, attitudes towards religion are the only major difference between the school aspirations of parents of children at government and private schools. So those who want their children to receive a religious education are treated less favourably than those who want their kids to have a secular education. If you read the history of public education in Australia this aspect was much more open in the 19th century than today – Protestants, particularly, wanted to diminish the strength of the Catholic Church.
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I’ve long been in two minds about SMH economics columnist Ross Gittins. A couple of years ago I suggested that there were two Ross Gittins, the Saturday Ross Gittins whose column in the paper’s business section is often an easily-understood explanation of economic ideas and behaviour, and the Wednesday Ross Gittins whose column on the opinion page is regularly a Clive Hamiltonesque critique of modern society – we’d be better off working less, having fewer material goods, facing less confusing choice etc.

I think we need more writers like the Saturday Ross Gittins, demystifying economics and correcting mistaken ‘common sense’ economic reasoning. The boom in science writing for a general audience has not been matched by a boom in similarly-pitched economics writing, though books like Tim Harford’s The Undercover Economist and Steve Levitt’s Freakonomics have sold well (though the latter is not really about the economy as usually understood).

Whether we need more writers like the Wednesday Ross Gittins is another matter. As with the Saturday Ross Gittins, the Wednesday Ross Gittins is mainly a recycler of other people’s research, but usually of non-economists. But for some reason – perhaps because he is supposed to be an economics columnist, or maybe because many writers enjoy the pose of ‘dissent’ – the Wednesday Ross Gittins contrasts the view he is presenting with those of ‘conventional economics’, ‘economic rationalists’ or businesspeople. But, as is common in the anti-economics literature, these are never named economists or businesspeople. The smell of straw men burning comes from these arguments.

Both Ross Gittins are on display in his new book Gittinomics (extract here), which joins quackonomics as a play on Levitt’s Freakonomics. While there is not much conventional micro or macro economics to be found, there is interesting information to be found about what he calls ‘home economics’ – work, education, family, housing, health etc.
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