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Biological Measures of the Standard of Living

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  • Richard H. Steckel

Abstract

When economists investigate long-term trends and socioeconomic differences in the standard of living or quality of life, they have traditionally focused on monetary measures such as gross domestic product -- which has occupied center stage for over 50 years. In recent decades, however, scholars have increasingly recognized the limitations of monetary measures while seeking useful alternatives. This essay examines the unique and valuable contributions of four biological measures -- life expectancy, morbidity, stature, and certain features of skeletal remains -- to understand levels and changes in human well-being. People desire far more than material goods and in fact they are quite willing to trade or give up material things in return for better physical or psychological health. For most people, health is so important to their quality of life that it is useful to refer to the "biological standard of living." Biological measures may be especially valuable for historical studies and for other research circumstances where monetary measures are thin or lacking. A concluding section ruminates on the future evolution of biological approaches in measuring happiness.

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Bibliographic Info

Article provided by American Economic Association in its journal Journal of Economic Perspectives.

Volume (Year): 22 (2008)
Issue (Month): 1 (Winter)
Pages: 129-152

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Handle: RePEc:aea:jecper:v:22:y:2008:i:1:p:129-152

Note: DOI: 10.1257/jep.22.1.129
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  1. Steckel, Richard H., 1986. "A Peculiar Population: The Nutrition, Health, and Mortality of American Slaves from Childhood to Maturity," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 46(03), pages 721-741, September.
  2. Victor R. Fuchs, 1972. "The Contribution of Health Services to the American Economy," NBER Chapters, in: Essays in the Economics of Health and Medical Care, pages 1-38 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  3. David Cutler & Angus Deaton & Adriana Lleras-Muney, 2005. "The Determinants of Mortality," Working Papers 164, Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Research Program in Development Studies..
  4. Sandberg, Lars G. & Steckel, Richard H., 1988. "Overpopulation and malnutrition rediscovered: Hard times in 19th-century Sweden," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 25(1), pages 1-19, January.
  5. Richard H. Steckel, 1995. "Stature and the Standard of Living," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 33(4), pages 1903-1940, December.
  6. Richard H. Steckel & Roderick Floud, 1997. "Health and Welfare during Industrialization," NBER Books, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, number stec97-1, octubre-d.
  7. Daniel Kahneman & Alan B. Krueger, 2006. "Developments in the Measurement of Subjective Well-Being," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 20(1), pages 3-24, Winter.
  8. Dora L. Costa, 1998. "Understanding the Twentieth Century Decline in Chronic Conditions Among Older Men," NBER Working Papers 6859, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  9. John Komlos, 1989. "Nutrition and Economic Development in the Eighteenth-Century Habsburg Monarchy: An Anthropometric History," Books by John Komlos, Department of Economics, University of Munich, number 2.
  10. Richard H. Steckel, 1982. "Height and Per Capita Income," NBER Working Papers 0880, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  11. Richard H. Steckel, 1995. "Percentiles of Modern Height Standards for Use in Historical Research," NBER Historical Working Papers 0075, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  12. Dora L. Costa & Richard H. Steckel, 1995. "Long-Term Trends in Health, Welfare, and Economic Growth in the United States," NBER Historical Working Papers 0076, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  13. Ronald Lee, 2003. "The Demographic Transition: Three Centuries of Fundamental Change," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 17(4), pages 167-190, Fall.
  14. Behrman, Jere R & Deolalikar, Anil B, 1987. "Will Developing Country Nutrition Improve with Income? A Case Study for Rural South India," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 95(3), pages 492-507, June.
  15. Robert Fogel & Dora Costa, 1997. "A theory of technophysio evolution, with some implications for forecasting population, health care costs, and pension costs," Demography, Springer, vol. 34(1), pages 49-66, February.
  16. Komlos, John, 1998. "Shrinking in a Growing Economy? The Mystery of Physical Stature during the Industrial Revolution," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 58(03), pages 779-802, September.
  17. Lars Sandberg & Richard H. Steckel, 1997. "Was Industrialization Hazardous to Your Health? Not in Sweden!," NBER Chapters, in: Health and Welfare during Industrialization, pages 127-160 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  18. Gail Honda, 1997. "Differential Structure, Differential Health: Industrialization in Japan, 1868-1940," NBER Chapters, in: Health and Welfare during Industrialization, pages 251-284 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  19. Joseph M. Prince & Richard H. Steckel, 2001. "Tallest in the World: Native Americans of the Great Plains in the Nineteenth Century," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 91(1), pages 287-294, March.
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