Aggregate measures of well-being, England 1781-1850

I went in the field of economic history after I discovered how much it was to properly measure living standards. The issue that always interested me was how to “capture” the multidimensional nature of living standards. After all, what weight should we give to an extra year of life relative to the quality of that extra year (see all my stuff on Cuba)?

However, I never tried to create “a composite” measure of living standards. I thought that it was necessary, first, to get the measurements right. However, I had been aware of the work of Leandro Prados de la Escosura who has been doing considerable work on this in order to create composite measures (Leandro also influenced me on my Cuba reasoning – see this article).

A year ago, I discovered the work of Daniel Gallardo Albarrán from the University of Groningen at the meeting of the Economic History Society (EHS). Daniel’s work is particularly interesting because he is trying to generate a composite measure of well-being at one of the most important moment in history: the start of the British industrial revolution.

Because of its importance and some pieces of contradicting evidence (inequality, stature, amplitude of real wage increases, amplitude of income increases, urban pollution leading to increased mortality risks etc), the period has been begging for some form of composite measure to come along (at least a serious attempt at generating it). Drawing on some pretty straightforward microeconomic theory (the Beckerian in me likes this), Daniel generates this rich graph (see the paper here).

Daniel

The idea is very neat and I hope it will inspire some economic historians to attempt an expansion upon Daniel’s work. I have already drawn outlines for my own stuff on Canada since I study an era when (from the early 1800s to the mid-1850s) real wages and incomes seem to be going up but stature and mortality are either deteriorating or remaining stable while inequality is clearly increasing.

Forget income, the greatest outcome of capitalism is healthier lives!

Yesterday, James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute posted, in response to Bernie Sanders’ skepticism towards free market, that capitalism has made human “fantastically better”.

I do not disagree – quite the contrary. However, Pethokoukis makes his case by citing the fact that material quality of life has increased for everyone on earth since the early 19th century. I believe that this is not the strongest case for capitalism.  The strongest case relies on health. This is because it addresses an element that skeptics are more concerned about.

Indeed, skeptics of capitalism tend to underline that “there is more to life than material consumption”. And they are right! They merely misunderstand that the “material standard of living” is strongly related to the “stuff of life”. For them, income is of little value as an indicator. Thus, we need to look at the “quality of human life”. And what could be better than our “health”?

The substantial improvement in the material living standard of mankind has been accompanied by substantial improvements in health-related outcomes! Life expectancy, infant mortality, pregnancy-related deaths, malnutrition, risks of dying from contagious diseases, occupational fatalities, heights, the types of diseases we die from, quality of life during old age, the physical requirements of work and the risks related to famines have all gone in directions indicating substantial improvements!

My favorite is the case of height. Human stature is strongly correlated with income and other health outcomes (net nutrition, risks of disease, life expectancy, pregnancy-related variables). Thus it is an incredible indicator of the improvement in the “stuff of life”. And throughout the globe since the industrial revolution, heights have increased (not equally though).  Over at OurWorldInData.org, Max Roser shows this increase since the 1800s (in centimeters)

height-development-by-world-regions-interpolation-baten-blum-2012-0-579x500

However, the true magnitude of the increase in human heights is best seen in the data from Gregory Clark who used skeletal remains found in archaeological sites for ancient societies. The magnitude of the improvement is even clearer through this graph.

male-heights-from-skeletons-in-europe-1-2000-clark-645x403.png

The ability of “capitalism” to generate improvement in material living standards did leak into broader measures of human well-being. By far, this is the greatest outcome from capitalism.