Sam Watson’s journal round-up for 9th January 2017

Every Monday our authors provide a round-up of some of the most recently published peer reviewed articles from the field. We don’t cover everything, or even what’s most important – just a few papers that have interested the author. Visit our Resources page for links to more journals or follow the HealthEconBot. If you’d like to write one of our weekly journal round-ups, get in touch.

Non-separable time preferences, novelty consumption and body weight: Theory and evidence from the East German transition to capitalism. Journal of Health Economics [PubMed] [RePEc] Published January 2017

Obesity is an ever growing (excuse the pun) problem associated with numerous health risks including diabetes and hypertension. It was recently reported that eight in ten middle-aged Britons are overweight or exercise too little. A strong correlation between economic development and obesity rates has been widely observed both over time within the same countries and between countries across the world. One potential explanation for this correlation is innovation of novel food products that are often energy dense and of little nutritional benefit. However, exploring this hypothesis is difficult as over the long time horizons associated with changing consumer habits and economic development, a multitude of confounding factors also change. This paper attempts to delve into this question making use of the natural experiment of German reunification in 1989. After the fall of the Berlin Wall a wave of products previously available in West Germany became available to East Germans, almost overnight. The paper provides a nice in depth theoretical model, which is then linked to data and an empirical analysis to provide a comprehensive study of the effect of novel food products in both the short and medium terms. At first glance the effect of reunification on diet habits and weight gain appear fairly substantial both in absolute and relative terms, and these results appear robust and well-founded, theoretically speaking. A question that remains in my mind are whether preferences in this case are endogenous or state dependent, a question that has important implications for policy. Similarly, did reunification reveal East German preferences for fast food and the like, or were those preferences changed as a result of the significant cultural shift? Sadly, this last question is unanswerable, but affects whether we can interpret these results as causal – a thought I shall expand upon in an upcoming blog post.

Ontology, methodological individualism, and the foundations of the social sciences. Journal of Economic Literature [RePEc] Published December 2016

It is not often that we feature philosophically themed papers. But, I am a keen proponent of keeping abreast of advances in our understanding of what exactly it is we are doing day to day. Are we actually producing knowledge of the real world? This review essay discusses the book The Ant Trap by Brian Epstein. Epstein argues that social scientists must get the social ontology right in order to generate knowledge of the social world. A view I think it would be hard to disagree with. But, he argues, economists have not got the social ontology right. In particular, economists are of the belief that social facts are built out of individual people, much like an ant colony is built of ants (hence the title), when in fact a less anthropocentric view should be adopted. In this essay, Robert Sugden argues that Epstein’s arguments against ontological individualism – that social facts are reducible to the actions of individuals – are unconvincing, particularly given Epstein’s apparent lack of insight into what social scientists actually do. Epstein also developed an ontological model for social facts on the basis of work by John Searle, a model which Sugden finds to be overly ambitious and ultimately unsuccessful. There is not enough space here to flesh out any of the arguments, needless to say it is an interesting debate, and one which may or may not make a difference to the methods we use, depending on who you agree with.

Heterogeneity in smokers’ responses to tobacco control policies. Health Economics [PubMedPublished 4th January 2016

In an ideal world, public health policy with regards to drugs and alcohol would be designed to minimise harm. However, it is often the case that policy is concerned with reducing the prevalence of use, rather than harm. Prevalence reducing policies, such as a Pigouvian tax, reduce overall use but only among those with the most elastic demand, who are also likely to be those whose use leads to the least harm. In this light, this study assesses the heterogeneity of tobacco users’ responses to tobacco control policies. Using quantile regression techniques, Erik Nesson finds that the effects of tobacco taxes are most pronounced in those who consume lower numbers of cigarettes, as we might expect. This is certainly not the first study to look at this (e.g. here and here), but reproduction of research findings is an essential part of the scientific process, and this study certainly provides further robust evidence to show that taxes alone may not be the optimum harm reduction strategy.

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