Are You Better Off Than You Were 17 Years Ago?

If we use gross domestic product (GDP) as a broad measure of prosperity, we are 160% better off than we were in 1980 and 35% better off than we were in 2000. Other common metrics such as per capita (per person) income and total household wealth reflect similarly hefty gains.

But are we really 35% better off than we were 17 years ago, or 160% better off than we were 37 years ago? Or do these statistics mask a pervasive erosion in our well-being? As I explained in my book Why Our Status Quo Failed and Is Beyond Reformwe optimize what we measure, meaning that once a metric and benchmark have been selected as meaningful, we strive to manage that metric to get the desired result.

Optimizing what we measure has all sorts of perverse consequences. If we define “winning the war” by counting dead bodies, then the dead bodies pile up like cordwood. If we define “health” as low cholesterol levels, then we pass statins out like candy. If test scores define “a good education,” then we teach to the tests.

We tend to measure what’s easily measured (and supports the status quo) and ignore what isn’t easily measured (and calls the status quo into question). So we measure GDP, household wealth, median incomes, longevity, the number of students graduating with college diplomas, and so on, because all of these metrics are straightforward.

We don’t measure well-being, our sense of security, our faith in a better future (i.e. hope), experiential knowledge that’s relevant to adapting to fast-changing circumstances, the social cohesion of our communities and similar difficult-to-quantify relationships.

Relationships, well-being and internal states of awareness are not units of measurement. While GDP has soared since 1980, many people feel that life has become much worse, not much better: many people feel less financially secure, more pressured at work, more stressed by not-enough-time-in-the-day, less healthy and less wealthy, regardless of their dollar-denominated “wealth.”

Many people recall that a single paycheck could support an entire household in 1980, something that is no longer true for all but the most highly paid workers who also live in locales with a modest cost of living.

As noted in yesterday’s postAbout Those “Hedonic Adjustments” to Inflation: Ignoring the Systemic Decline in Quality, Utility, Durability and Service, the quality of our products and services has declined dramatically, even as prices continue marching higher.

Meanwhile, inequality and officially protected privilege has soared, as I outline in my book Inequality and the Collapse of Privilege.

The gulf between these two narratives–the ever-higher financial statistics, and our unsettling sense that we’re less secure, less healthy and less wealthy–is widening. I think the Grand Canyon is an accurate metaphor here: the mainstream media parrots glowing official statistics on the distant side of the canyon, while on the lived-in-world side, well-being continues decaying. 

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  • Jed Grover

    The banks, corporations and top single digit individuals of the pyramid are better off. This “Cecil Rhodes” vetted colonization thing has been disastrous not for humanity but also for the planet. Get Israel out of our affairs.

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  • heysailor!

    Amen, Jed. Things have been in a downward spiral for most of my adult life. Certainly since Reagan, maybe since the end of the Vietnam War. Many causes. All I know is that we are reaping what we have sown. Or at least what the political elite has sown for us.

    Getting Israel out of our affairs, and staying out of other countries’ internal affairs except in cases of gross human rights violations that we are not also guilty of, would be a start. We’ve rigged a lot of foreign elections. Now we’re complaining? Horrors! We need to do the right thing, for the right reason, at the right time.