Economists: Behave yourselves

Woman with young children Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption One study found that women return to work on lower pay

I haven't made it to Geneva and the congress this week of the European Economic Association, but I've been following its proceedings at a distance, and on your behalf.

Of the academic papers being presented, several offer insight which complements the startling finding, published on Tuesday by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, about the lower pay rates for mothers returning to work.

This also reflects the move towards behavioural economics and away from quantitative modelling as an obsession. And that duly makes it far more interesting - if sometimes just as pointless.

I will, in due course, nominate one such paper for the Ignoble Awards, in recognition of the most pointless or ridiculous piece of academic research.

One that could have been a contender is a study that used a search engine that can assess the "mood" of words in a text, to trawl through books published in the US, UK, Germany, France, Italy and Spain since 1776, and to set the findings against these countries' economic performance.

It's clever, in that search engine technology has only recently made it possible to run the numbers on all of modern literature.

And it is duly concluded that happiness is closely related to health and life expectancy, but unrelated to how much money we have. That's right - statistical evidence that money can't buy happiness, at least for authors.

Another study finds that people with higher levels of education tend to want to live near similar people, even if that costs them a lot more money. File that under 'stating the obvious'.

You might not be surprised to find, also, that the introduction of mechanical public clocks in the 13th century had a positive impact on economic growth.

Glass ceiling

Quite a lot of the research is looking at gender. I offer you, for instance, the finding that sportsmen fighting for a bronze medal are more likely to win if they have just come out of a qualifying win compared with those failing to make it to the final. That's by 68% to 32%.

For women, the team of Cohen-Zada, Krumer and Shtudiner found no such link. This is the economists' way of identifying the impact of testosterone.

If that male hormone is boosted by victory and subdued by loss, that can have effects on women's behaviour in the workplace and in financial markets. As widely observed seven years ago, they're less likely to fall for the exuberance of an asset bubble.

How about women on the board? Making more women company directors seems to have had mixed results for productivity.

By comparing companies that draw more women into the boardroom with similar companies that don't, the academic combo of Comi, Grasseni, Origo and Pagani find that the Italians find it a positive experience for productivity. But in Belgium, France and Norway? Not so much.

They reckon that southern European culture has excluded women from positions of corporate power more than northern. So when the law enforces a quota of women directors, the untapped potential of unpromoted women is easier to identify nearer the Mediterranean. And the results are too.

"In Belgium and France, gender quotas have had negative effects on both profitability and productivity," they conclude.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Research says that as women gain economic power they have more options in the workplace

A sobering piece of research reflects on the link between economic power and domestic abuse.

Using evidence from Spain, one Ana Tur-Prats found that in "traditional societies", when women go out to work, domestic abuse rises. In more gender-equal societies, there is no evidence of this 'backlash' effect, she finds.

Another project, studying the same subject and in south-west England, found the positive effects of women going to work.

As they gain economic power, they have more options. So it is claimed a 10% rise in the full-time wage is linked to a 14% drop in domestic abuse. And in due course, that extra spending freedom leads to a 41% rise in the divorce rate for those being abused.

Another way of looking at it: a 10% reduction in childcare costs also helps empower mothers to get out of abusive relationships.

With less of a financial burden paying for childcare, that is reckoned to reduce abuse by 2%, and put up the divorce rate for abused women by 12%.

These are academic papers, and open to vigorous dispute in Geneva this week. I can't vouch for the quality of the modelling. But only in economics would domestic abuse be described as having a "disutility".

"Easily observed"

And now to my nomination for an Ignoble Award. Let's hear it for Jochen Ludering, a German researcher at Giessen University, who has been studying the importance of social networks and age in the pornography industry.

This has required Jochen to research around 10,000 performers between 1970 and 2013. That's right. Ten thousand.

"In the adult film industry," he writes, dryly, "collaboration between performers can be easily observed."

And the conclusions: porn actors are more likely to stay in the industry in any given year if they were in an important role in the preceding year. And older entrants to the industry are more likely to leave than younger ones.

Jochen, we salute you. Your time studying porn has been a revelation.

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