Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Women and Warm Guns

I was going to shut up about that Stevenson-Wolfers paper, "The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness," because I'm skeptical that subjective happiness as reported on surveys is capturing anything meaningful. Predictably, however, the media won't let go and there's an annoying-as-fuck op-ed by Douthat in today's Times about how this means that we've got to encourage motherhood. The original paper itself is interesting but is being wildly overinterpreted. A few disconnected observations:
  • The data starts in 1972, which doesn't predate the women's movement. In particular, it isn't obvious that it would extrapolate linearly to the 1950s or the 1930s. It's possible that there was, for whatever reason, a spike in female happiness in the 1960s that has slowly been fading ever since.
  • The conclusion that there's a "new happiness gap" opening up is unsubstantiated. Women are roughly as happy now as men to within reasonable error bars.
  • That women are in the 49th rather than the 52nd %ile of happiness, does not obviously call for a policy response. If women were earning 98% as much as men, how many people would you see whining about a gender gap?
  • The European data are pretty flat. Yes, the slope is negative, but it's also tiny.
  • The authors suggest a plausible objection to the use of long-term trends in subjective happiness even if subjective happiness is treated as useful -- "It has been recognized that an individual’s assessment of their well-being may reflect the social desirability of responses and Kahneman (1999) argues that people in good circumstances may be hedonically better off than people in worse circumstances, yet they may require more to declare themselves happy. In the context of the findings presented in this paper, women may now feel more comfortable being honest about their true happiness and have thus deflated their previously inflated responses."
  • Another result that one ought to keep in mind -- "we disaggregate the fertility results to consider trends in happiness separately among single parents and married parents, and, to account for the duel burden of working parents, between employed parents and non-employed parents. Once again, we see similar trends in happiness across these groups, casting doubt on the hypothesis that trends in marriage and divorce, single parenthood, or work-family balance are at the root of the happiness declines among women." This fact is hard to account for on the basis of generic "traditionalist" theories.

1 comment:

Alan said...

Someone's got an itchy trigger finger.