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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://eprints.lse.ac.uk/19745/
File Function: Open access version.
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Paper provided by London School of Economics and Political Science, LSE Library in its series LSE Research Online Documents on Economics with number 19745.

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Length: 28 pages
Date of creation: Mar 2007
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:ehl:lserod:19745
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  1. Clark, Andrew E. & Frijters, Paul & Shields, Michael A., 2007. "Relative Income, Happiness and Utility: An Explanation for the Easterlin Paradox and Other Puzzles," IZA Discussion Papers 2840, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
  2. John F. Helliwell, 2002. "How's Life? Combining Individual and National Variables to Explain Subjective Well-Being," NBER Working Papers 9065, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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  4. 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.
  5. Clark, Andrew E. & Oswald, Andrew J., 1994. "Satisfaction and comparison income," CEPREMAP Working Papers (Couverture Orange) 9408, CEPREMAP.
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  7. DiTella, Rafael & MacCulloch, Robert & Oswald, Andrew J., 1999. "The macroeconomics of happiness," ZEI Working Papers B 03-1999, University of Bonn, ZEI - Center for European Integration Studies.
  8. Armin Falk & David Huffman & Gert Wagner & Jurgen Schupp & Thomas Dohmen & Uwe Sunde, 2005. "Individual risk attitudes: New evidence from a large, representative, experimentally-validated survey," Framed Field Experiments 00140, The Field Experiments Website.
  9. Griliches, Zvi & Hausman, Jerry A., 1986. "Errors in variables in panel data," Journal of Econometrics, Elsevier, vol. 31(1), pages 93-118, February.
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  11. 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.
  12. Rajnish Mehra & Edward C. Prescott, 2003. "The Equity Premium in Retrospect," NBER Working Papers 9525, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  13. Richard Layard & Guy Mayraz & Stephen J. Nickell, 2007. "The Marginal Utility of Income," SOEPpapers on Multidisciplinary Panel Data Research 50, DIW Berlin, The German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP).
  14. Blundell, Richard, 2006. "Earned income tax credit policies: Impact and optimality: The Adam Smith Lecture, 2005," Labour Economics, Elsevier, vol. 13(4), pages 423-443, August.
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  18. repec:oup:restud:v:61:y:1994:i:1:p:57-80 is not listed on IDEAS
  19. Amos Tversky & Daniel Kahneman, 1979. "Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk," Levine's Working Paper Archive 7656, David K. Levine.
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  27. repec:oup:restud:v:38:y:1971:i:114:p:175-208 is not listed on IDEAS
  28. 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.
  29. Metrick, Andrew, 1995. "A Natural Experiment in "Jeopardy!"," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 85(1), pages 240-53, March.
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