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Is Now Better?

Paul Snitzer
Published on April 30, 2024

“A fool is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
— Oscar Wilde

After living the past many years through what seems like a never-ending series of unpleasant or indeed catastrophic events — new wars in the Middle East and in Europe, the pandemic and its associated shut-downs and disruptions, political violence and rioting, and divisiveness based on hatred of the other side rather than an attempt to resolve differences through debate and compromise – is it possible to alter a pessimistic view of our affairs by thinking about the mundane statistic known as the “Gross Domestic Product” or GDP?

GDP, as stated by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, is the total market value of the goods and services produced within the United States in a year. GDP is often used as a short-hand to reflect the state of the economy (things are “booming” when GDP is way up whereas a recession is commonly defined as a decline in GDP over a six month period) and is also used by many forecasters as an important factor in predicting the results of an upcoming Presidential election.

Whether GDP is a useful statistic for measuring the well-being of a nation is a hotly debated topic. In a famous 1968 speech, made two days after announcing his intention to run for the Presidency, Senator Robert F. Kennedy popularized a school of criticism of GDP by arguing that “it counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads” but not the “beauty of our poetry” – it “measures everything” except “that which makes life worthwhile.” This argument has now become almost the conventional wisdom, echoed, for example, in a 2019 Harvard Business Review article titled “GDP Is Not a Measure of Human Well-Being.

A more pointed criticism, however, of GDP is not that it fails to measure intangibles such as the beauty of poetry or that it includes the cost of manufacturing weapons, but that it measures the price in the marketplace only, and not the value to human beings, provided by a good or service. Let’s consider some examples.

As our first example – let’s imagine that Bill Gates is in the need of surgery to remove his appendix and is given three options: (1) have the surgery without any anesthesia; (2) have the surgery with anesthesia but at the cost of his entire fortune; or (3) skip the surgery and accept what will result. I do not know Bill Gates, but even assuming his physical courage is equal to anyone else’s on earth, can we not assume that of these three options, option (1) is the least likely he would select?

In short, modern anesthesia’s value is incalculable. Hundreds of thousands of surgeries are performed across this country every week, and the cost of the anesthesia used in each surgery is added to the GDP calculation, but that cost in no way reflects the true value received by the surgery patient. To that patient and the patient’s family, the value delivered is priceless.

Some may object that this Bill Gates hypothetical is far-fetched, but, surprising though it may be, it is a historical fact that before the invention of modern anesthesia, human beings were aware that surgeries were sometimes necessary. The English novelist Fanny Burney, for example, in 1811 underwent a mastectomy and described the procedure in detail in a letter to her sister that is not for the faint of heart.

Prior to this experience, Fanny Burney had published her first novel anonymously and to acclaim, stunning English society when she revealed her identity. She then became friendly with another unusual English woman who is also relevant to this discussion, Hester Thrale.

Hester Thrale, at the prodding of her impoverished mother and successful uncle, had married a wealthy merchant and soon used her status to become introduced to and friendly with the leading intellectuals and artists of her day. Most famously, she formed a close friendship with Samuel Johnson who was the author of the first English dictionary among many other works, and the subject of Boswell’s biography, Life of Samuel Johnson. Thrale’s friendship with Johnson was so close that even today there are speculative articles in literary magazines about its nature, and when Thrale’s husband died, it was widely assumed she would marry Johnson. Instead, she caused “the scandal of the decade” by marrying a Catholic music teacher who had tutored her children. Johnson died five months later, while Thrale, age 43, enjoyed twenty-five years in a happy second marriage and published numerous books under her own name.

This extraordinary 4’11 woman also, prior to her second marriage, experienced the loss of many of her children, an experience that, until recently, was an ordinary occurrence in human life — Thrale had children who died at childbirth and at the ages of 9 days, 7 months, 20 months, 23 months, 4 years and 9 years.

Here too, therefore, we may ask whether the advances in nutrition, sanitary measures, and knowledge of infant care, which have in advanced economies materially reduced the infant mortality rate, are given the value that they are due by the GDP? The answer, obviously, is “no” – the value we receive by not having to experience the death of our infant children is infinite, even if the GDP measures the cost of the items which keeps them alive.

We could ask these same types of questions about other documented advances in the quality of life which we take for granted, including the elimination of catastrophic famines in most of the world, the decline of accidental deaths and injuries, and the worldwide increase in life expectancy over historical norms (notwithstanding a setback in this measure caused by the covid pandemic).

Finally, despite the skepticism of some writers, so long as the United States remains a free and open society, there is ample reason to believe that engineers, computer scientists, medical professionals, entrepreneurs and others will continue to invent or discover new products and services that will make life better in ways that we can only dimly imagine. For example, in the April 2024 publication of MIT Technology Review, the author asks “Is robotics about to have its own ChatGPT moment?” The thesis of the article is that through the use of AI, robots will be able to accomplish tasks once thought impossible. Embedded in this article are links to videos of robots performing wondrous feats, such as cooking a 3 course Cantonese meal from scratch, or navigating through the landscape naturally in the exact manner of a dog. This type of technology marrying AI with robotics is in its infancy, and only the most farsighted futurist can imagine what it will produce that will cause those living in 2050 to wonder, “how did they live without it in 2024.”

The astute reader of these letters may recognize that some of the ideas presented above are summaries of arguments made in what might be termed “optimists literature” – such as Hans Rosling’s Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things are Better Than You Think, Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, How the World Became Rich by Mark Koyama and Jared Rubin, or Now is Better by Stefan Sagmeister.

I have discussed some of these ideas previously, although not recently, but in troubling times I needed a reminder of the many reasons we have to be grateful to be alive now. Perhaps the reader needed this as well.

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