A ray of light in these dark days: Living standards have risen far more than we think
The media seems full of gloom at the moment. Chaos over Brexit, Saudi Arabia, potential nuclear escalation between the US and Russia – you name it, people are worried about it.
A ray of light is shone – an apt phrase as you will see – by the work of Bill Nordhaus, a Yale economist who was the co-winner of this year’s Nobel prize in economics, along with Paul Romer.
Over the past two decades or so, Nordhaus has worked mainly on integrating climate change into macroeconomic models, and was awarded the accolade for this research. He is no knee-jerk lefty in this respect. For example, he was a prominent critic of Nick Stern’s report on climate change, which was commissioned by Gordon Brown.
But in my view, Nordhaus should have been awarded the Nobel prize years ago for his brilliant work on measuring how well-off we all are.
The conventional measure of GDP per capita is widely criticised these days. But instead of just whinging from the sidelines about how economics is wicked and useless – sadly a common feature in modern critiques – Nordhaus actually tried to do something about it.
In 1972, he and James Tobin (another future Nobel laureate) developed the Measure of Economic Welfare. The two economists took GDP as their starting point. They adjusted it to include, for example, an assessment of the value of leisure time and the amount of unpaid work in an economy.
Taking these factors into account means we are better off than the conventional GDP measure suggests.
The most dramatic paper by Nordhaus, published in 1996, is on the seemingly obscure topic of the history of lighting. He analysed the topic over a vast time span, from the first sources of artificial light – the fires used by humanity around one million years ago – to the modern fluorescent bulb.
The focus of the paper was not the technology as such, but whether the standard ways of measuring the price of lighting captured the massive improvements in quality which have taken place, particularly in the twentieth century.
Nordhaus concludes that the traditional price indexes of lighting vastly overstate the increase in lighting prices over the last two centuries relative to quality. So the true rise in living standards has consequently been significantly understated.
The magnitude of the difference is vast. Nordhaus estimates that the price measured in the conventional way rose by a factor of between 900 and 1,600 more than the true price.
Bodies such as the Office for National Statistics receive information about the economy in current prices. If output in any particular sector has increased, a key task for them is to decide how much of that is due to a rise in prices and how much to a genuine increase in output.
Rapid quality change means that the conventional ways of doing this simply cannot cope. Price rises are overstated, and in consequence “real” changes in output and living standards are understated.
The implication of the apparently esoteric work Nordhaus did on lighting is that modern technology such as the internet has increased living standards far more than the official statistics indicate. Finally some news to be cheerful about.