Journal of Economic Perspectives: Vol. 22 No. 1 (Winter 2008)
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Biological Measures of the Standard of Living
Steckel, Richard H. 2008. "Biological Measures of the Standard of Living." Journal of Economic Perspectives, 22(1): 129-152.
When economists investigate long-term trends and socioeconomic differences in the standard of living or quality of life, they have traditionally focused on monetary measures such as gross domestic product -- which has occupied center stage for over 50 years. In recent decades, however, scholars have increasingly recognized the limitations of monetary measures while seeking useful alternatives. This essay examines the unique and valuable contributions of four biological measures -- life expectancy, morbidity, stature, and certain features of skeletal remains -- to understand levels and changes in human well-being. People desire far more than material goods and in fact they are quite willing to trade or give up material things in return for better physical or psychological health. For most people, health is so important to their quality of life that it is useful to refer to the "biological standard of living." Biological measures may be especially valuable for historical studies and for other research circumstances where monetary measures are thin or lacking. A concluding section ruminates on the future evolution of biological approaches in measuring happiness.
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Steckel, Richard H.
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