International Comparisons of Living Standards by Equivalent Incomes
International comparisons of living standards are still primarily made using GDP per capita, in spite of recurrent criticism that this is a partial and ill-founded measure of social welfare (Sen). Alternative measures abound, such as the Index of Human Development computed by the United Nations Development Program since 1990 or Osberg and Sharpe’s Index of Economic Well-being. The problem is that these indicators are based on the aggregation of various subindexes of social performance, arbitrarily weighted. We suggest reliance on a basic notion of welfare economics, namely, compensating variations, which take into account country differences in non-income dimensions of living standards (such as leisure, health, etc) and make international comparisons possible. We use compensating variations in a way that is consistent with recent developments in social choice theory, so that our work is closely tied to a theoretically sound notion of social welfare.
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