The April 30 issue of The Economist includes a special briefing on The Prosperity Puzzle. The briefing highlights how tricky it is to compare living standards across countries, across economic classes within a country, and, - arguably hardest of all, - across time.
“Which would you prefer to be: a medieval monarch or a modern office-worker?,” it glibly asks. “The king has armies of servants. He wears the finest silks and eats the richest foods. But he is also a martyr to toothache. He is prone to fatal infections. It takes him a week by carriage to travel between palaces. And he is tired of listening to the same jesters. Life as a 21st-century office drone looks more appealing once you think about modern dentistry, antibiotics, air travel, smartphones and YouTube.”
The point is further illustrated by referencing the research of Yale economist William Nordhaus. In the mid 1990s, Nordhaus looked at the evolution of the price of light over the past two centuries in Do Real-Output and Real-Wage Measures Capture Reality? The History of Lighting Suggests Not.