Founder, The Roots of Progress (rootsofprogress.org)

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What does it mean to "raise standards of living"?

I think the term “standard of living” is not defined very rigorously, but is generally understood to mean the overall material conditions of life possible in a given time and place. There are reasonable definitions at Wikipedia, the Encyclopedia Britannica, and Investopedia. (I checked Our World in Data's entry on “Economic growth” and their essay “The short history of global living conditions and why it matters that we know it,” but these articles don't seem to define the term.)

I would consider it to include:

  • the size and comfort of homes and their amenities (heating and A/C, water and sewage, electricity, gas)
  • the availability and variety of fresh, nutritious food
  • the quantity and quality of possessions that the average person has (clothes, electronics, tools, jewelry, sporting equipment, etc.)
  • the opportunity to work a good job and to avoid excessive or harsh manual labor or other working conditions, and to have leisure time (including leisure for children in school, and the elderly in retirement)
  • the ability to travel with speed, convenience, and comfort
  • the ability to communicate for business or socializing
  • access to knowledge, entertainment, art and culture
  • overall health and protection from disease
  • safety from accidents and disasters

Hans Rosling has a simplified way to think about income levels that I find helpful, where he looks at drinking water, transportation, cooking, eating, and sleeping.

If (all else being equal) there is an improvement in any of those factors or similar factors, then living standards have been raised.

The typical metric used to measure living standards is GDP per capita. GDP doesn't exactly correspond to or capture quality of life, but it's the best metric we have, and it tends to be highly correlated with other quality-of-life metrics such as life expectancy or literacy rates.

I notice that Marginal Revolution University has a relevant video: Real GDP Per Capita and the Standard of Living

Jason's links and tweets, 2022-06-08

Doesn't seem to be a way to have links open in a new tab, but if you click through to the original post, the links on that page will open in new tabs.

I have experimented with embedding, screenshotting, or quoting full tweets but I haven't liked how it has turned out in practice, so I keep reverting to simple links.

Thanks for the suggestions!

We won the war on infectious diseases, but now we need to learn from it

I think the general thesis here, that most of the mortality improvements were from sanitation/hygiene rather than from pharma or even vaccines, is fairly well-accepted. But see my comments above for how to interpret this—I don't think there's any reason to be disappointed with the medical field.

We won the war on infectious diseases, but now we need to learn from it

That would be an interesting mini-research project. Also one of us could check my references here and see what I was relying on when I made those statements…

Book Review: How the World Became Rich

Good review. I was in the middle of reading the book itself when it came out, so I finished that first and just circled back to read your comments.

I appreciated the discussion of culture but thought it could have gone a bit deeper. They discuss the Republic of Letters, but the name Bacon does not appear anywhere in the book. And there are citations to Mokyr but not to Margaret Jacob (I guess because she's a historian and not an economic historian).

On the question of human capital in the 2nd IR, you say “most people weren’t doing jobs that required more than rudimentary literacy and numeracy.” That's true, but couldn't the crucial difference have been made by a small minority of jobs that required advanced education? IR2 depended on electromagnetism (for both electrical power/lighting and electronic communications) and applied chemistry (Bessemer, Haber-Bosch, Bakelite, oil refining, synthetic dyes, pharmaceuticals, etc.) In fact, if you consider the public health improvements that were going on at the same time to be part of it (they were certainly a part of the overall increase in living standards), then it also depended on microbiology. So it seems hard to imagine how it could have happened without a number of researchers/engineers in all of these fields.

To Increase Progress, Increase Desire

Thanks for the Mokyr ref, had not read that one yet. You are truly an encyclopedia of the econ history literature!

Yes, I'm wondering about the market expansion too. Foreign trade does seem to be a part of it?

Related, see this from Anton Howes which I thought was very interesting (emphasis added):

One possible explanation is that there was some special change in England’s agricultural technology that increased its productivity, requiring fewer and fewer people, and possibly even driving them off the land, so that they were forced to find alternative employment. This thesis comes in various forms, many of which I’m still coming to grips with, but broadly speaking it implies a “push” from the fields, and into industry and the cities. Desperate, and unable to demand high wages, these cheaper workers should have stimulated industry’s growth.

The alternative, however, is that there was nothing very special or innovative about English agriculture, and that instead there was an even larger increase in the demand for workers in industry and services. The thesis implies a “pull” into industry and the cities, causing people to abandon agriculture for more profitable pursuits, and thereby making England’s agriculture de facto more productive — something that may or may not have actually been accompanied by any changes to agricultural technology, depending on how much slack there was in how the labourers or land had been employed.

The push thesis implies agricultural productivity was an original cause of England’s structural transformation; the pull thesis that it was a result. The evidence, I think, is in favour of a pull — specifically one caused by the dramatic growth of London’s trade.


General note: I find it remarkable how many major developments seem to ultimately trace back to either (1) the Age of Discovery or (2) the printing press. And I find it a remarkable coincidence how those basically happened at the same time.

To Increase Progress, Increase Desire

Agree with that last point. Both necessity and desire were around since the dawn of humanity. They didn't create an Industrial Revolution by themselves.

(But you could argue that by the same token, producers also always had the desire to lower their costs / increase quality. It's not just desire, but opportunity.)

Also, wasn't there some significant demand-side stuff going on? Wasn't there a general increase in wealth and consumption levels just before the IR, that was maybe significant in helping to create markets for more/better goods produced by the new manufacturing technology?

Why Wasn't the Steam Engine Invented Earlier? Part I

Thanks Anton! Let me step back a bit and clarify where I'm coming from.

I don't know where you're going with this, but there are a few kinds of conclusions you might end up on:

  • Which invention was the most important one, the one that deserves to be called out on our historiographic timelines (did Newcomen “really” invent the steam engine, or was it Savery, or was it de Caus, etc.)
  • Whether the steam engine “could have been” invented earlier (maybe even in ancient Rome)
  • Whether science was “needed” to invent the steam engine

And what I'm saying is that in considering those topics, it's crucial to consider (1) the universality of the mechanism and (2) the amount of force that can be generated (not to mention other factors such as the fuel efficiency and therefore the cost of operation).

It could be that many types of machines operated by steam and/or air pressure for a long time, but if for practical reasons they couldn't be applied to a wide range of industrial purposes, and if some later design change was needed to achieve that, then I think said design change is what deserves to be called out as the key invention.

I'm sure I'm not telling you anything you don't already know, just harping on a pet issue of mine.

The Last Crusade: Fighting for the Holy Land of Industrialism

I believe the crucial importance of skilled mechanics, in part because of what I found when researching the threshing machine:

… the threshing machine was just past a certain threshold of the combination of the amount of force required and the delicacy of the operation. A loom is a somewhat complex machine performing an intricate process, but not one that uses a high degree of force. A flour mill, or a trip hammer at an iron works, is a high-force application, but not one that is particularly subtle or delicate. Both of these were in use long before the Industrial Revolution. But a threshing machine seems to require enough of both characteristics that manufacturing quality became critical to meet the standard of reliability that was needed for practicality and adoption.


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