Poverty, prosperity, and growth are often measured in monetary terms, most commonly as people’s income. But while monetary measures have some important advantages, they have the big disadvantage that they are abstract. In the worst case monetary measures – like GDP per capita – are so abstract that we forget what they are actually about: people’s access to goods and services.
The point of this text is to show why economic growth is important and how the abstract monetary measures tell us about the reality of people’s material living conditions around the world and throughout history:
- In the first part I want to explain what economic growth is and why it is so difficult to measure.
- In the second part I will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of several measures of growth and you will find the latest data on several of these measures so that we can see what they tell us about how people’s material living conditions have changed.
What are these goods and services that I’m talking about?
Have a look around yourself right now. Many of the things you see are products that were produced by someone so that you can use them: the trousers you are wearing, the device you are reading this on, the electricity that powers it, the furniture around you, the toilet that is nearby, the sewage system it is connected to, the bus or car or bicycle you took to get where you are, the food you had this morning, the medications you will receive when you get sick, every window in your home, every shirt in your wardrobe, and every book on your shelf.
At some point in the past many of these products were not available. The majority did not have access to the most basic goods and services they needed. A recent study on the history of global poverty estimates that just two centuries ago roughly three-quarters of the world “could not afford a tiny space to live, food that would not induce malnutrition, and some minimum heating capacity.”