I am writing in response to Max Olson's important and insightful post To Increase Progress, Increase Desire. I believe a lack of desire and the good enough problem is an underrated impediment to both progress, and adaption of the progress studies mindset.

Candidly, when I preach the importance of progress to those around me, most simply do not care. To many, the prospect of marginally greater progress is not particularly attractive as they do not feel it will benefit them.

I think there is something akin to utility monsters afflicting rich societies due to the good enough problem. That is, when a product, industry or general state of society is good enough, most gains from progress are spent on near insatiable goods (ie healthcare), or zero sum status competitions (ie housing, education, faster bicycles etc) with high diminishing returns, rather than on things that subjectively improve human welfare.[1] 

This is problematic as: 

  1. increasing human welfare is an important terminal goal; and
  2. it leads to public apathy with respect to the idea of advancing progress.

A demonstration of this can be seen with Nike and running shoe progress.

The Pegasus is Nike’s most popular and iconic running shoe. First released in 1983 for $50 ($130 in todays dollars), the Pegaus is now in its 39th edition and sells for $120. This is to say: all the gains in material research and shoe innovation, increases in productivity, a larger globalized market, reductions in trade barriers, cheaper labour and resource costs etc. went into making a better running shoe rather than a cheaper running shoe.

While the Pegasus 39 is a much better shoe than the original, most runners don't feel better off. Despite running being an individual sport, running enjoyment is largely driven by zero sum status competitions oriented around running expectations.

Running expectations - the frequency, distance and pace one aspires to run is greatly influenced by the behaviour of those around us. Improvements in running shoe quality leads to running norms changing in sync, meaning most runners are not happier when running shoe quality improves as they are relatively just as slow as before. To make matters worse, the Pegasus is no longer the top of the line running shoe; despite all the progress that lead to running shoes being cheaper to produce, most runners will now pay a larger percentage of their income for the top of the line running shoes that leave them no happier.

I think this generalizes to many things in our society. Running shoe progress is not being harnessed to make a more enjoyable and rewarding form of running, or creating a superior alternative activity to running - it is being wasted on a largely non-beneficial status competition. Sadly, projecting twenty years in the future, I don’t think Nike running shoes will make anyone happier then, even though I am confident there will be huge amounts of innovation and efficiencies created over this time period.

To speak more broadly, If we could find a way to increase annual GDP growth by 100%, I firmly believe most of the gains would be eaten up by an increase in spending on zero-sum status competitions and insatiable goods that only minimally increase public welfare.

This view is instructive as even if we could solve societal challenges like nimbyism or education cost disease, I believe most the gains from doing so would be then lost to other zero-sum status competition with significant diminishing returns.

To put it simply: when there is less demand for progress, there will be less supply for progress.

Two potential pathways to increasing demand include: 

  1. increase desire so there is demand to innovate things that provide real benefits; or
  2. trade excess gains being inefficiently used with things people will connect with improved welfare.

I believe increasing desire is self-explanatory. 

With respect to the second point, a good example of this is the idea of connecting GDP growth to things that will improve people's lives such as labour conditions (IE for every X increase in GDP, the statutory minimum vacation days per year increases or statutory work week hours would decrease by Y).[2]

When things are good enough and people subjectively feel they don’t benefit from progress (like in the case of the running shoe example), they are less likely to feel motivated to support the abstract idea of progress. When people are able to connect progress and material advances in their quality of life, I suspect they are much more likely to support progress and fight against gross inefficiency. 

I am strongly in favour of increasing desire, but as an alternative way to increase demand, I propose the idea of connecting gains from progress with things that improve wellbeing rather than get wasted away through diminishing returns.

  1. ^

    While this is just describing things with diminishing returns, I believe the categories of different types of diminishing returns is important to highlight.

  2. ^

    I appreciate most PSers likely hate the idea of decreasing working hours as it may lead to a short-term decrease in productivity. With that said, I frankly don't know what other actionable things  are highly likely to increase wellbeing in a non-messy way. Additionally, it's not clear to me that in the long run that hours worked is necessarily correlated with productivity; by compressing income ranges, it may reduce reliance on high paying/status jobs leading to more people following their passions (and the innovation that comes with that).


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As should be obvious by my initial post I am in complete agreement that the demand side of the equation is underrated (the supply side of progress may be more important, but most of existing discussion seems to focus solely on that).

I appreciate your 2nd point on shifting focus more to how people will directly benefit. 

Another question this made me think of is what are the main reasons people don't already see the benefits? Lack of imagination? Incremental innovation over long periods going unnoticed?

This is largely a response to footnote 2.

In The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth Benjamin Friedman deploys a lot of case studies of social progress and economic growth going hand in hand. Similarly, in Stubborn Attachments, Tyler makes a compelling case the GDP is greatly linked with human-wellbeing, but he also allows that there is more to well-being than the basket of goods that can be currently be purchased. He calls the total basket of goods Wealth Plus. So far so good.

I appreciate that what you do here is look for a way for economic growth to correlate with some level of social change, i.e. more vacation. As a first look, I think this style of thinking hold some promise. It is impossible to detail all the goods that humans choose to purchase or tradeoff against and create public policy around them. But perhaps we can formulate an account of Wealth Plus/ Human Flourishing that takes advantage of the correlation between wealth and wellbeing.

Well-being is likely multiplicative of several species of goods which tradeoff against each other, but are hard to exchange. I want to do more theorizing on this. The example of vacation days vs. productive work is interesting. Can you share more about your model of rival species of goods?  

Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

This fascinating thread on the EA forum provides some really interesting data on the relationship between GDP growth and happiness.

I think certain types of innovation clearly cause an immediate increase in human welfare (ie medical advances, longevity increases, ways to decrease various forms of risk that lead to more safety), but other than these particular categories of goods, I think we reached a point of saturation where better material goods are of negligible marginal welfare value. Despite this, changes to social dynamics (ie things that cause less socialization, increase greater inequality, increase status desires like instagram) can cause a loss of welfare. My model is that pursuing progress in material goods may lead to social costs. Specifically, if the increase in material innovation/decrease in costs provides negligible welfare value but the social impact provides real  costs, people will feel worse off (and be right!).

I want people to aspire to be wealthier so we can have more demand for progress and subsequently, more progress. It's very tricky to think of ways to increase one's wealth that isn't then lost to relative status games. IE if you provide everyone with an extra $20,000 per year, I suspect it will increase aggregate costs (lost to cost disease) by $20,000 per capita and leave the overwhelming majority of people in very similar positions.

I think its very challenging to think of subsidies to welfare that aren't immediately then lost through status competitions (and are actually feasible to implement). 

I love Stubborn Attachments and think its point about Wealth Plus is true. Unfortunately, Stubborn Attachments does not attempt to grapple with what is included in Wealth Plus and what policies we should pursue to increase it. There is a lot of evidence in support of what actions people can take to improve their quality of life; unfortunately, for various reasons, it is very challenging for governments to come up with policies that improve human welfare.

I think it would be worthwhile for more people in this community to brainstorm possible ways to connect progress with perceptible benefits in welfare. The only one I can think of is connecting wealth/gdp to hours worked. I think in a future where these cycles are reinforcing, there will be much more demand for progress.