Since the 1950s, it is clear that American incomes have skyrocketed, and in fact I have argued in classes for years that our income understates this by a good deal. Yet, there is a not insignificant number of laymen and experts alike that believe Americans are no more happy today than they were in the past. I’ve sat through countless talks that have suggested that “GDP cannot increase at 2x to 3x forever especially if it doesn’t make us happy.”
But remember that GDP is not the only thing to have changed since the 1950s, and I remain flummoxed as to why so much attention is given to this metric. Environmental quality has increased, the size of government has increased, women’s freedom and the rights of minorities have increased, discrimination has decreased, space travel has increased, etc. since the 1950s too. So it is just as plausible to argue that NONE of those things makes us happy too, isn’t it?
What is the theory that tells us why more income is not making us happier, yet that the other things that come along with it, and in fact are enabled by it, can be making us happier? Is the thesis that these all make us happy but income itself makes us miserable so on net it is a wash? Does everything make us miserable except going back to self-sufficient farming? Should we ban income generating activities to make us all happier today? Or, since all of the other good things that are happening do not make us happier, let’s roll those back too. Let’s roll back the women’s rights movement! Let’s reinstitute Jim Crow! Let’s foul up a few more rivers!
These are, of course, asinine, and it is absurd to move from the happiness claim to those proscriptions – so not only is the claim about happiness absurd to me, so is the logical leap that we ought to redistribute income. In addition to a massive increase in the material amounts of stuff we have command over, our life expectancy has increased by 30 years since 1900 and still increases by 1/3 of a year per year; we are less sick than we used to be; we are better fed than we used to be; and especially we have more leisure time than we used to have too. These have all happened at the same time as material living standards have increased. It would be just as correct to lament, “we cannot continue to expect more leisure time in the future, especially since existing leisure time does not make us better off!” What gives? What is the story? Does nothing make us happy? Is it possible to just ignore the happiness Mathusians? Or is the force of public policy going to come raining down on us to force us to be happier than we are right now?