Modern macroeconomics often seems to treat rapid and stable economic growth as the be-all and end-all of policy. That message is echoed in political debates, central-bank boardrooms, and front-page headlines. But does it really make sense to take growth as the main social objective in perpetuity, as economics textbooks implicitly assume?
Certainly, many critiques of standard economic statistics have argued for broader measures of national welfare, such as life expectancy at birth, literacy, etc. Such appraisals include the United Nations Human Development Report, and, more recently, the French-sponsored Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, led by the economists Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, and Jean-Paul Fitoussi.
But there might be a problem even deeper than statistical narrowness: the failure of modern growth theory to emphasize adequately that people are fundamentally social creatures. They evaluate their welfare based on what they see around them, not just on some absolute standard.
The economist Richard Easterlin famously observed that surveys of “happiness” show surprisingly little evolution in the decades after World War II, despite significant trend income growth. Needless to say, Easterlin’s result seems less plausible for very poor countries, where rapidly rising incomes often allow societies to enjoy large life improvements, which presumably strongly correlate with any reasonable measure of overall well-being.
In advanced economies, however, benchmarking behavior is almost surely an important factor in how people assess their own well-being. If so, generalized income growth might well raise such assessments at a much slower pace than one might expect from looking at how a rise in an individual’s income relative to others affects her welfare. And, on a related note, benchmarking behavior may well imply a different calculus of the tradeoffs between growth and other economic challenges, such as environmental degradation, than conventional growth models suggest.