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Quotation of the Day…

… is from page 15 of the late Stanley Lebergott’s brief but brilliant 1993 volume, Pursuing Happiness: American Consumers in the Twentieth Century (footnotes excluded):

Did rising real consumer expenditures raise economic welfare in this century?  There is no way to stand outside the universe, impartially comparing the units of happiness (or welfare) enjoyed by the generation born in 1900 with those of the generation born in 1920.  But judgments can be made in terms of today’s consumer values.

One involves a short thought experiment.  Suppose that automobiles and penicillin disappeared, and electric washing machines, refrigerators, disposable diapers, electricity and television.  Suppose indeed that every economically significant good added since 1900 disappeared.  And suppose that the remaining items – salt pork, lard, houses without running water, etc. – were marked down to 1900 prices.  Would today’s Americans then judge that their economic welfare had improved?  Or would they, if anything, conclude that they derive more “welfare” from their material goods than their great-grandparents did from theirs?

It is easy, even voguish, for those with ready access to modernity’s material blessings – antibiotics, indoor plumbing, air conditioning, cell phones, astonishingly low-priced yet high-quality clothing, inexpensive overnight package delivery, wi-fi, and multiple varieties of deodorants – to sniff at our abundance of material goods, declare that this abundance provides no ‘real’ happiness (while simultaneously – if contradictorily – lamenting that this material abundance isn’t spread more ‘equally’), and assert that we’d all be much happier and more genuinely enriched if only we took more leisure, lived more ‘simply,’ and rejected the ‘trappings’ and ‘false promises’ of modern economic growth.  Easy, but almost certainly erroneous.