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The Right Stuff: What Prosperity Is and Isn’t

2014 January 31
by Ian Welsh

Is a society prosperous when everyone has an abundance of goods, the usual definition of prosperity? Are you prosperous if you have an abundance of goods, but no time to enjoy them? Are you prosperous if you have an abundance of goods, but you’re sick? Are you prosperous if you have an abundance of goods, but you live in an oppressive society? Are you prosperous if you have an abundance of goods but are desperately unhappy and feel you’ve wasted your life?

This falls flat: more goods don’t necessarily make us better off, nor more services. More foods that make us sick aren’t better. More health care doesn’t mean we’re healthier, it often means we’re sicker. More prisons mean our society is producing more criminals and more crime.

Just increasing economic activity doesn’t make people better off. It doesn’t increase prosperity.

Perhaps the best example is the change from hunting and gathering to agriculture. It would seem self-evident that learning how to grow more food would make us better off. In fact, however, moving from hunting and gathering to agriculture lead to worse lives for most people. People were shorter in most agricultural societies, which indicates worse nutrition. They suffered more from disease and had far more chronic health conditions. Most people also had less free time and didn’t live as long as the hunter-gatherers who preceded them.

Nor was this a short term decline, it lasted for thousands of years. Height is a good measure of nutrition, and we are still not as tall as our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Pelvic depth, which measures how easily women give birth has never recovered. Median lifespan was not higher for around 6,000 years. And even after it recovered, it declined again in large parts of the world. Members of the Hellenic world, from 300 BC to 120 AD, had longer lives than westerners before the 20th century.(1)

Our lives can get worse, and stay worse, for hundreds or thousands of years, despite having more goods.

If prosperity means having more stuff, but being sicker and dying sooner, do we want it?

A better definition of prosperity is about having, not more goods and services, but the right goods and services in the right quantity.

We should want goods and services that make us healthier, happier, smarter, more able to do great works and to live well. Instead of more work, we should want right work, enough work to make the right stuff, but not so much work we have no time for our loved ones, friends and doing the activities we love, whatever those might be. And, as much as possible we should want health instead of medicine and low crime rather than prisons.

All other things being equal more productive capacity is better. The more stuff we can make, in theory, the better off we’ll be. But in practice, it doesn’t always work that way.

Part of the problem is due to hierarchies and inequality. Inequality is undeniably bad for us. The more unequal your society is, the lower the median lifespan. The more unequal the society, the sicker, in general. More heart attacks, much more stress. The more unequal, the more crime. These links are robust.

The links run two ways. On the one hand, humans find inequality stressful. The human body, if subject to long term stress, becomes unhealthy and far more likely to be sick. People who feel unequal act less capable than those who feel equal. This is true for the rich and powerful in unequal societies and the poor. Everyone suffers. Though the poor and weak do suffer more, even the rich and powerful would be healthier and live longer in equal societies, most likely simply due to the stress effect.(2)

The second part is distribution, or rather, the question of who gets to decide the distribution. The more unequal a society, the less stuff the poor and middle class have, comparatively. Some technologies tend to lead to more inequality, some tend to lead to more equality. In most hunter-gatherer societies there isn’t enough surplus to support a class of rich powerful people and their servitors, in particular their servitors who enforce the status quo through ideology or violence. With little surplus, there is equality. This doesn’t mean hunter-gatherers live badly, most of them seem to have spent a lot less time producing what they needed than we do, they certainly didn’t work 40 hour weeks, or 60 hour weeks, closer to 20. (3) The rest of the time they could dance, create art, make love, socialize, make music or whatever else they enjoyed.

Agriculture didn’t lead immediately to inequality, the original agricultural societies appear to have been quite equal, probably even more so than the late hunter-gatherer societies that preceded them. But increasing surpluses and the need for coordination which arose, especially in hydraulic civilizations (civilizations based around irrigation which is labor intensive and require specialists) led to the rise of inequality. The pharoahs created great monuments, but their subjects did not live nearly as well as hunter-gatherers.

The organization of violence, and the technology behind it is also a factor. It is not an accident that classical Greece had democracy in many cities, nor that it extended only to males who could fight and not women or non-fighting males. It is not an accident that Rome had citizenship classes based on what equipment soldiers could afford: the Equestrian class was named that because they could take a horse to war. It is not an accident that the Swiss Cantons, where men fought in pike formation, were democratic for their time. Nor is it an accident that universal suffrage arose in the age of mass conscription.

When Rome moved away from citizen conscription to a professional army it soon lost its liberty. As we move away from mass armies it is notable that while we haven’t lost the vote, formally, the vote seems to matter less and less as politicians more and more do what they want no matter what the electorate might want.

Power matters for prosperity, the more evenly power is spread, the more likely a society is to be prosperous, for no small factions can engage in policies which are helpful to them, but broadly harmful to everyone else. Likewise widespread demand, absent supply bottlenecks, leads to widespread prosperity as well.

In the current era we have seen a massive increase in CEO and executive pay, this is due to the fact that they have taken power over the primary productive organizations in our society: corporations. The owners of most corporations, if they are not also the managers, are largely powerless against the management. It is not that management is more competent than it was 40 years ago, at least at their ostensible job of enriching shareholders, it is that they are more powerful than they were 40 years ago, compared to shareholders and compared to government.

Because increases in the amount we can create do not automatically translate into either creating what is good for us, or into relatively even distribution of what we create, increases in the amount we can create do not always lead to prosperity, and certainly they do not have to lead to widespread affluence. Productivity in America rose 80.4% from 1973 to 2011, but median real wages rose only 10.2% and median male wages rose 0.1%.(4) This was not the case from 1948 to 1973, when wages rose as fast as productivity.

Increases in productivity, in our ability to make more stuff, only lead to prosperity and affluence if we are both making the right stuff, and we are actually distributing that stuff widely. If a small group of individuals are able to skim off most of the surplus then prosperity does not result and if a society which is prosperous allows an oligarchy, nobility or aristocracy to form, even if such an aristocracy (like our own) pretends it does not exist, society will find its prosperity fading.

Creating goods that hurt people is not prosperity either. At the current time about 40% of all deaths are caused by pollution or malnutrition.(5) If someone you love has died, there is a good chance they died because we make stuff in ways that pollute the environment, or because the stuff we make, like much food, is very bad for us. Being fat is not healthy, and we have an epidemic of obesity. Even when we do not, immediately, die, we suffer from chronic diseases at a rate that would astonish our ancestors. As of the year 2000, for example, approximately 45% of the US population suffered from a chronic disease. 21% had multiple conditions.(6) Some of this is just due to living longer, but much of it is due to the food we eat, the stress our jobs inflict on us, and the pollution we spew into the air, land and water.

We should always remember this. Increases in productive capacity and technological advancement do not always lead to welfare and when they do, they do not have to do so immediately. The industrial revolution certainly did lead to increased human welfare, but if you were of the generations thrown off the land and made to work in the early factories, often 6 1/2 days a week, in horrible conditions, you would not have thought so. You were in virtually every way worse off than before being thrown off the land, and so were your children. A few industrialists and the people around them certainly did very well, but that is not prosperity, nor is it affluence.

Prosperity, in the end, is as much about power and politics as it is about technology and productive ability. The ability to make more does not ensure we are making the right things, or that the people who need them, get them. Productive capacity which is not shared is not prosperity.

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17 Responses
  1. Celsius 233 permalink
    January 31, 2014

    In other words; sufficiency/sufficient. You seem to shy from that word. In its very definition are many answers.
    It’s a good word and very deep if one cares to look.
    But, sufficiency has been beaten out of our vocabulary. Your example of hunter/gatherer societies knew sufficiency, as did the indigenous peoples of North America (and most continents). The earliest records of American colonization by the English attest to the massive granaries and seed stashes of the North Eastern and east coast native nations.
    These were, by any definition, very wealthy people who fully understood sufficiency, if not the word.

  2. stirling permalink
    January 31, 2014

    He means more than sufficient

  3. Ian Welsh permalink
    January 31, 2014

    I want abundance

  4. Celsius 233 permalink
    January 31, 2014

    January 31, 2014
    He means more than sufficient
    Wow, you’re back. Congratulations on your hard work and continued progress.
    And so it begins…
    Sufficient is abundance, when it’s properly understood and implemented.
    You want abundance, and I see that is precisely what is wrong with today’s America (if not the world).
    I wonder how many humans would be happy, healthy and well with sufficient?
    If I misunderstand then please explain your idea/understanding of the difference.
    I see abundance as an extension of greed as opposed to an acceptance of the natural cycle of the life lived.
    I guess, for me, it’s a question of the meaning of our life lived and what it’s importance is.
    I’m wondering if we’re speaking the same language, the same vision, the same hope for the future? After all, isn’t this what it’s all about? The future?
    We haven’t got much of one as far as I can see…

  5. Dan H permalink
    January 31, 2014

    Sufficiency and abundance have both been very warped by our society. I also think self sufficiency is a better term than just sufficiency for what you’re getting at. Without going off into libertarian madness, self sufficiency revolves around molding your own abundance through personal power and responsibility. What has been done to farmers globally is the starkest example I see of the evil of this system. Self sufficiency has been legally regulated out of existence, and enforced financially.

  6. Ian Welsh permalink
    January 31, 2014

    Self-sufficiency is a different matter, and that is something I talk about extensively in the book I’m writing. The more dependent you are, the less power you have, and the more you eventually have to settle for whatever those with power will give you.

  7. hvd permalink
    January 31, 2014

    This, of course, was the consistent theme of Joe Bageant and which he believed was the root of a good deal of right wing anger regarding FDR and the squeezing of self sufficient farmers into a money economy and dependency.

  8. hvd permalink
    January 31, 2014

    I should have added after FDR: and liberalism generally which they believed had the consequence of squeezing self sufficient farmers into a money economy and dependency

  9. S Brennan permalink
    January 31, 2014

    “FDR and liberalism…squeezing self sufficient farmers into a money economy”

    Shucks…and all this time I thought it was, deflation of commodities [low prices for grains, meat & produce], overhanging farm credit, a decade of drought and the resulting dust bowl…instead it was price support policies that helped many keep their farm that made farmers seeth at the government…who knew huh?

  10. January 31, 2014

    Every day I am amazed at what we have become. Cars. We are cars. Great giant critters rolling over the scarred landscape, killing the air, killing the culture, killing hope. The bigger the car, the prettier the car, the faster the car the better. There is not another way to get from here to there.

    No mass transit to be seen. Or when it is built, like in my community, it has no feeder lines. Consequently, the trains are mostly empty as they speed past the cars with only the driver waiting at stop lights.

    Cars are not abundance. Cars are the death of any hope of community. They separate us. We sit in traffic among other citizens and listen to music that numbs us. Cars are small portable living rooms that kept us secure from intimacy. We move from our car to our other living space and sit on a couch to observe the world through the lense of television.

    I have a car. What can I do?

  11. hvd permalink
    February 1, 2014

    S Brennan

    I was not criticizing either FDR or liberalism. However, Bageant felt that the crux of a great deal of right wing anger arises from the belief that they were driven from the eden of self-sufficient farming outside the money economy and into the hell of a money economy (taxes, accounting, the breakdown of the self-sufficient community, etc.) by FDR and liberalism. There is some truth in that view. Which is not to deny the truth or validity of the TVA, farm supports, etc.

    History is often selective. For the folks from the Appalachians who Bageant believed are the source of a lot of right wing sentiment, drought was not much of an issue, but the encroachment of Washington through taxes etc. forcing them into the money economy felt like an attack on their self-sufficient farms and communities. Many of them, he argues, felt that what they got (electricity, public services etc.) were not worth the loss of autonomy. Unfortunately this sentiment which I understand and which is not untrue, is taken advantage of by the likes of the Kochs and the corporatists who want that autonomy entirely for themselves.

    This I think is part of the puzzle that Ian is struggling with and that is at the center of a lot of the discussions here. What are the appropriate trade offs between autonomy (of individuals, of families, of communities, of nations) and interdependence and the benefits of scale? Put another way how do you provide for self-sufficiency and abundance? Particularly in a world where it is easy to take advantage of decent and true enough sentiments. How do you build an ethic and world view that permits decent enough people feeling decent enough thoughts to see their commonality of purpose? It is not the one or the other, my way or the highway.

  12. hvd permalink
    February 1, 2014

    The community that Bageant writes about started out as subsistence farmers (and importantly hunters) living in a subsistence community composed of kith and kin. All obligations and responsibilities in that community are deeply understood and could and would be met through ones own labor (the investment of ones life as it were). They understood that there was a greater sovereign out there to whom they owed only their lives (labor) in a time of national need like war.

    That is the accounting they understood. To the extent things were monetized they were monetized in terms of life expended (favors given, shared experience, perhaps with a little bit of interest (there’s a wide range of meanings for that little word)). But the liberal state (and I mean liberal in the U.S. sense) requires that taxes be paid and that they be paid only in legal tender (greenbacks). You can’t pay in kind. The accumulation of legal tender requires that you no longer live as a subsistence farmer. You must create surplus (beyond your own and your community’s needs) to trade for this “money.” This isn’t something that you understand or agree to, particularly when the “value” of the “money” is decided on elsewhere.
    And even more so when every transaction you are involved in within your community is required to be figured in terms of this “money” so that the surplus can be taxed. This feels profoundly wrong to you. It does to most people. And for the most part you are continuously “ripped off” by the gummint and corporations and “those people” who actually understand money and want to be involved in this creation of surplus.

    I think most of us fit in this category. We just want to expend our lives productively as we see fit without all of this extraneous accounting which we really don’t understand. But this doesn’t create abundance. There is room in this world for folk music and art and other “excess” things. And you may be willing to create a little excess to exchange for things that you can’t produce locally. But then you always end up dealing with folks who assign the value to things because they understand “money” and you don’t. But this does not provide for the abundance that results in the benefits of electricity, good sanitation, etc. It does not provide for the things cities create. The political tension is palpable. The book “Debt, the first 5,000 years” by David Graeber is a good description of all of this.

    Money for most of us is talismanic. We don’t understand it and it represents life expended.

  13. February 2, 2014

    Fantastic discussion – I especially like the highlight of the tension between autonomy and abundance. My first thought is that this tension is a result of the monetized, capitalistic arrangement. The archetypally true communal arrangement would de-commoditize those things which are human needs (food, water, healthcare, shelter, etc.) and be perfectly happy to express their autonomy in other ways (e.g., arts, crafts, special skills that build social capital.)

    As for abundance – in communities like these abundance is a great danger encouraging population growth. Historically it has been handled by basically throwing a huge party and having fun using up the extra stuff (like harvest festivals.)

    Mary Mac, your car rant struck a chord in me.

    I have a car. What can I do?

    Obviously, only you can answer that, but allow me to share my experience, the good and the bad.

    I stopped driving in 1997 (at age 40.) It was pretty smooth at first – I was walking distance from work, and in a community that had groceries and restaurants, etc., also in walking distance. The only “bad” was I stopped being free enough to just drive anywhere – it required more planning and a curtailing of my expectations of what “freedom” means.

    It did get bad. I had to change jobs and ended up with an hour-and-a-half city bus commute each way. Plus you had to shoot for an earlier bus than necessary because sometimes it didn’t come, meaning I was at the office 1/2 hour early most days. So I went from working 8 hours a day to “working” 11 1/2. A “good” from this is that I developed a rather resigned patience.

    And it got worse. When I became unemployed, job searches were a real bear, as you can imagine. Realistically, you couldn’t do more than a couple of interviews a day, and few potential employers are impressed that you will be relying on public transportation in a city that only reluctantly provides it (Phoenix – that hour-and-a-half commute was partially because using a connecting bus is a real crapshoot in this town.)

    But here’s the takeaway – I’ve learned to adjust to the limitations of not having a car like a “normal” American. I’ve removed an enormous expense from my life (besides the obvious car payments and insurance, there is a whole world of contact with authorities that simply went away once I stopped exercising my driving “privileges.” This was surprisingly unburdening.) Another unburdening was the loss of the anguish expressed in your question: “What can I do?” I’m no longer part of that problem, and I look pretty good in the mirror because of it.

    Good luck with your journey.

  14. S Brennan permalink
    February 2, 2014

    It seems the Germans have found a solution to consumerism straight from Milton Friedman’s playbook:

    Tax the the living shit out of consumption;

    All profits to multinational corporations are to remain untaxed;

    And keep in place, taxes on wages…which is not how the 1% of society gets paid for it’s “labor”.

  15. erichwwk permalink
    February 3, 2014

    I see it much as hvd does when he emphasis the the liberal state ” requires that taxes be paid and that they be paid only in legal tender (greenbacks). ” Thank you, hvd.

    Any attempt to address social injustice and oppression w/o addressing the issue of how to reform the US debt money and the taxation system works will fail.
    “A HREF=””> John Swomley’s book “HREF= “”>”The Politics of Liberation”:

    “The primary problem is not that there are oppressors and the oppressed; it is that there are entrenched systems of oppression that continue to function long after the immediate oppressors die or are killed. Liberation then means the destruction or the transformation of systems such as those that maintain the arms race, imperialism, racism, sexism, and monopoly capitalism. these systems cannot be mad tolerable. They require drastic but nonviolent change. ”

    Liberation politics is a politics NOT relying on achieving a position in government (electoral politics) nor bargaining or compromising with those who hold such position. A politics of liberation is concerned with empowering people, rather than substituting an “enlightened leader” for an oppressor, gaining little of value, and more likely, even setting the movement back.

    The oppressed cannot possibly be “prosperous”.

  16. erichwwk permalink
    February 3, 2014

    Apologies for the faulty HTML code. One more try

    “A HREF=”″> John Swomley’s book “HREF= “”>”The Politics of Liberation” :

  17. Jordan permalink
    February 4, 2014

    This is good, but do you have resources to expand on what you’ve said.

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