The late Herb Stein, one of Washington's wisest practitioners in the field of applied philosophy, aka economics, criticized the "are you better off" question" by noting that "everyone has a certain asset, which is the present value of his expected future life." But "all years are not alike." The years that come later in life can have special richness because one has learned things that enable one to appreciate each year more.
Stein noted that the question about being "better off" is thought to be about facts rather than feelings. But feelings are facts. Facts such as delight, serenity and gratitude have values not easily priced in cash.
The people asking and those answering the "better off" question seem to assume that the only facts that matter are those that can be expressed as economic statistics. Statistics are fine as far as they go, but they do not go very far in measuring life as actually lived.
We do, unfortunately, live, as Edmund Burke lamented, in an age of "economists and calculators" who are eager to reduce all things to the dust of numeracy, neglecting what Burke called "the decent drapery of life." In this supposedly rational and scientific age, the thirst for simple metrics seduces people into a preoccupation with things that lend themselves to quantification.
Self-consciously "modern" people have an urge to reduce assessments of their lives to things that can be presented in tables, charts and graphs -- personal and national economic statistics. This sharpens their minds by narrowing them. Such people might as well measure out their lives in coffee spoons.
In 1934, long before mankind strode jauntily into what it contentedly calls "the information age," T.S. Eliot asked:
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
So, are you better off than you were four years ago? That depends. On what? That, too, depends.
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