Arnold Kling  

Omniscient Voyeur

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Peter Gordon looks at a happiness survey that purportedly shows that the United States is only 15th in the world.

Those of us afflicted with revealed preference thinking might reflect on the fact that, in just the last few years, 3.5% of Puerto Rico's population decamped from #1 to #15 (refers to net outmigration).

Puerto Rico was number one in the survey. Mexico was number two. Taking Peter Gordon's approach, and watching what people do rather than how they answer surveys, is what I call in my book acting as "The Omniscient Voyeur."

For Discussion. What would be the biases of using net migration as an index of happiness, rather than survey results?

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COMMENTS (8 to date)
John Thacker writes:

Not all countries make migration equally easy. A country could hypothetically be very happy, yet make it quite difficult to immigrate. Emigration of the few unhappy could then still outweigh immigration. Now, in the long run we believe that immigration makes a country wealthier and happier, but that might be a long run effect.

It reminds me of how recent immigrants from poorer countries make various poverty and inequality statistics worse in the USA by their arrival, even though they don't make people here worse off, and they're better off than in their old country.

Marcos Polanco writes:

It is important to note that movement there is free movement between United States and Puerto Rico, just as there is free movement between Colorado and Nevada. Yet per-capita GNP is well below the US's. Outmigration is the natural result.

Michael Stastny writes:

Sample selection bias: Emigrants aren't random draws from the population.

Patri Friedman writes:

Assuming free movement, net migration only tells you how many people prefer country A to B and vice versa. It does not tell by how much the remainder prefer their country.

For example, in country A, you may have 97% who absolutely love it, and 3% who are slightly unhappy and move to B. In country B, 99% prefer it slightly to country A, and 1% are just unhappy enough to move to B. So the net migration is from A to B, yet the citizens of A are on average much happier.

Which is a pity, because action is a much better way to find out preferences than a survey :). I'm curious how Prof. Kling would answer the question "How can these biases be reduced?"

Ronnie Horesh writes:

Let's not forget that the policies of the country to which people want to migrate have something to do with making the emigrants unhappy. I am thinking particularly of the trade barriers the rich countries impose on agriculture, textiles and clothing. These do a lot to keep people in the developing world poor and miserable. The brightest and most ambitious do what they can to leave, further impoverishing their homeland.

Lawrance George Lux writes:

What would be the biases of using net migration as an index of happiness, rather than survey results?

The real bias would be the fact immigrants lack for work at home, or their families lack for social services. Therefore, the propellants for immigration are the major factors for unhappiness, combined with the known opportunities in the in the country of choice. lgl

Bill Fellers writes:

Happiness surveys are a joke. When used to compare different cultures, even different subcultures of a particular nation, even large sample sizes tell you nothing about the true relative happiness of people. Although this isn't a modern example, I think it's illustrative: Imagine surveying ancient Athenians and Spartans on their level of happiness. Do you really think you'd be able to compare the results in a meaningful way?

Trying to measure such subjective things is a fool's game. I think the happiness surveyors are good examples of overspecialization and people with too much free time. One thing I agree with the Islamofascists: Many Americans are ridiculously decadent.

sourcreamus writes:

One problem with using net migration is that a country can have happy citizens who can make themselves happier by leaving. If the average Puerto Rican in Puerto Rico has a happiness score of 50, and the average american has a happiness score of 25, but the average Puerto Rican in america has a happiness score of 75, then the it would be a rational move to go from a high happiness country to a low happiness country. This presumes that whatever is making the Puerto Ricans happy can be taken with them to america.

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