Growth, Quality, Happiness, and the Poor
Real national income per head in Britain rose by a factor of about 16 from the 18th century to the present. Other cases, such as that of the U.S. or Korea, have been even more startling, historically speaking. Like the realization in astronomy during the 1920s that most of the “nebulae” detected by telescopes are in fact other galaxies unspeakably far from ours, the Great Fact of economic growth, discovered by historians and economists in the 1950s and elaborated since then, changes everything. And 16, if one follows William Nordhaus’ persuasive arguments about quality improvements in (say) lighting, is a very low lower bound: the true factor is roughly 100. As Maxine Berg has argued, changing quality of products was as important as changes in process. But the gain is not to be measured by pot-of-pleasure “happiness studies.” These are questionable on technical grounds, but especially on the grounds that they do not measure human fulfillment. They ignore the humanities, pretending to scientific precision. It makes more sense to stay with things we economists can actually measure, such as the rise of human scope indicated by the factor of 16 or Nordhaus’ factor of 100, or by what Sen and Nussbaum call “capabilities.” Of course, what we really care about are the scope or capabilities of the poor. These have enormously expanded under “capitalism”---though a better word is simply “innovation,” arising from bourgeois dignity and liberty. It is the Bourgeois Deal: let me alertly seek profit, and I will make you rich.”
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