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The Marginal Utility of Income

  • Richard Layard
  • Guy Mayraz
  • Stephen J. Nickell

In normative public economics it is crucial to know how fast the marginal utility of income declines as income increases. One needs this parameter for cost-benefit analysis, for optimal taxation and for the (Atkinson) measurement of inequality. We estimate this parameter using four large cross-sectional surveys of subjective happiness and two panel surveys. Altogether, the data cover over 50 countries and time periods between 1972 and 2005. In each of the six very different surveys, using a number of assumptions, we are able to estimate the elasticity of marginal utility with respect to income. We obtain very similar results from each survey. The highest (absolute) value is 1.34 and the lowest is 1.19, with a combined estimate of 1.26. The results are also very similar for subgroups in the population. We also examine whether these estimates (which are based directly on the scale of reported happiness) could be biased upwards if true utility is convex with respect to reported happiness. We find some evidence of such bias, but it is small-yielding a new estimated elasticity of 1.24 for the combined sample.

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File URL: http://www.diw.de/documents/publikationen/73/diw_01.c.63429.de/diw_sp0050.pdf
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Paper provided by DIW Berlin, The German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP) in its series SOEPpapers on Multidisciplinary Panel Data Research with number 50.

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Length: 25 p.
Date of creation: 2007
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:diw:diwsop:diw_sp50
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  1. Rabin, Matthew, 2000. "Risk Aversion and Expected-Utility Theory: A Calibration Theorem," Department of Economics, Working Paper Series qt731230f8, Department of Economics, Institute for Business and Economic Research, UC Berkeley.
  2. Gauthier Lanot & Roger Hartley & Ian Walker, 2006. "Who Really Wants to be a Millionaire? Estimates of Risk Aversion from Gameshow Data," Keele Economics Research Papers KERP 2006/07, Centre for Economic Research, Keele University.
  3. Richard Layard & Guy Mayraz & Stephen Nickell, 2007. "The Marginal Utility of Income," CEP Discussion Papers dp0784, Centre for Economic Performance, LSE.
  4. David G. Blanchflower & Andrew J. Oswald, 2000. "Well-Being Over Time in Britain and the USA," NBER Working Papers 7487, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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  9. Thomas Dohmen & Armin Falk & David Huffman & Uwe Sunde & Jürgen Schupp & Gert G. Wagner, 2005. "Individual Risk Attitudes: New Evidence from a Large, Representative, Experimentally-Validated Survey," Discussion Papers of DIW Berlin 511, DIW Berlin, German Institute for Economic Research.
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  12. Clark, Andrew E., 1999. "Are wages habit-forming? evidence from micro data," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 39(2), pages 179-200, June.
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  18. Young, H Peyton, 1990. "Progressive Taxation and Equal Sacrifice," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 80(1), pages 253-66, March.
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  20. Griliches, Zvi & Hausman, Jerry A., 1986. "Errors in variables in panel data," Journal of Econometrics, Elsevier, vol. 31(1), pages 93-118, February.
  21. Andrew E. Clark & Paul Frijters & Michael A. Shields, 2006. "Income and happiness: Evidence, explanations and economic implications," PSE Working Papers halshs-00590436, HAL.
  22. Raj Chetty, 2006. "A Bound on Risk Aversion Using Labor Supply Elasticities," NBER Working Papers 12067, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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  24. Mirrlees, James A, 1971. "An Exploration in the Theory of Optimum Income Taxation," Review of Economic Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 38(114), pages 175-208, April.
  25. Easterlin, Richard A., 1995. "Will raising the incomes of all increase the happiness of all?," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 27(1), pages 35-47, June.
  26. Blundell, Richard & Browning, Martin & Meghir, Costas, 1994. "Consumer Demand and the Life-Cycle Allocation of Household Expenditures," Review of Economic Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 61(1), pages 57-80, January.
  27. Winkelmann, Liliana & Winkelmann, Rainer, 1998. "Why Are the Unemployed So Unhappy? Evidence from Panel Data," Economica, London School of Economics and Political Science, vol. 65(257), pages 1-15, February.
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