Unhappily Better Off

Review of The Progress Paradox, by Gregg Easterbrook

New York Post , January 02, 2004

The Progress Paradox starts with a promising puzzle: Americans live in what our ancestors, even a generation or two ago, would have considered a material utopia. Why don't we feel happier?

Gregg Easterbrook, a senior editor at The New Republic, starts with lots of evidence to demonstrate today's material abundance.

"The typical American place of dwelling has 5.3 rooms for its average of 2.6 people," he tells us. Instead of the long-desired "room of one's own," Americans on average have two rooms.

He observes that "Just two generations ago it was almost everybody, rather than 14 percent, who lacked health insurance -- only the wealthy knew protection against ruinous medical expenses."

Medical spending is rising because we buy more care. "A generation ago, a doctor would tell a patient with chronic nonspecific knee pain to take aspirin and avoid strenuous activity first thing in the morning; the standard was that you lived with such things," he writes. Today we get arthroscopic surgery and knee replacements. "The notion of living with any treatable discomfort is unthinkable."

We should be happy and grateful for these blessings, he says, but we aren't. "Our forebears, who worked and sacrificed tirelessly in the hopes their descendants would someday be free, comfortable, healthy and educated, might be dismayed to observe how acidly we deny we now are these things," writes Easterbrook.

Once the book goes beyond counting our blessings, however, it becomes increasingly muddled. Its explication of economics and psychology is unsophisticated at best.

To measure unhappiness, Easterbrook insists, without citation, that unipolar depression has increased tenfold in the industrialized nations since World War II. He admits that we have only snapshots not studies of the same people over time. He also admits that the author of the best cross-sectional study pegs the increase at no more than two or three times. He's hanging his thesis on a dubious statistic, and an irrelevant one at that.

Depression isn't a disease of the rich or of affluent countries. The World Health Organization reports that it's at least 50 percent more common among poor people, whether in Ethiopia or Germany, Zimbabwe or the United States. That most poor people simply live with their pain doesn't mean they don't suffer.

More important, depression is not the general dissatisfaction that "The Progress Paradox" supposedly addresses. Someone can be optimistic and grateful and nonetheless suffer from depression. Julian Simon, the famously optimistic economist on whose work Easterbrook builds, was a good example. (So, for that matter, am I.)

The book's naive economics is even worse than its folk psychology. Easterbrook treats the economy as an automated machine aimed at "the manufacture and distribution of the maximum volume of goods and services."

In fact, the market is a complex feedback system that maximizes not volume but value, which is as likely to be intangible as physical. But intangible value, at least other people's intangible value, is greedy waste to Easterbrook.

Middle-class people, for instance, are snapping up Whirlpool's aesthetically appealing Duet washer-dryer, which costs $2,200, instead of buying an equally functional set for $1,000. The extra $1,200 is just "money-burning" and would be better spent on charity.

But consider this: A Duet will last at least 10 years, so the additional $1,200 amounts to $2.30 a week. That's less than half what Easterbrook spends on perishable flowers. Whose aesthetic pleasure is "money-burning"? Easterbrook is understandably sympathetic to the hardships faced by poor people amid plenty. But his solution to poverty is to wave a magic policy wand.

Every American and legal immigrant should have health insurance, he says. What system should we adopt? He doesn't tell us, nor does he address the myriad feedback effects and distortions that any such system entails. Is everyone entitled to knee-replacement surgery?

We should raise the minimum wage to "at least $10 an hour," he says. Doubling the minimum wage would make the "prosperous majority" happier, because they "could enjoy their positions with a clearer conscience."

Easterbrook might feel better, but at least some minimum-wage workers would lose their jobs -- an effect he does not even bother to address. He also ignores the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is designed to boost the incomes of the working poor without throwing them out of work.

The question posed by "The Progress Paradox" would make a good book, one that might also consider whether discontent is in fact essential to progress. But this isn't that book.