The work of John Atherton journeyed through involvement with issues of poverty in the 1960s–1980s, to engagement with economic systems as a cause of poverty from the 1980s – late 1990, leading to engagement with the wider subject of economics, its relationship with not only Christianity, but global religion and belief and its growing involvement with wellbeing studies. He was widely considered one of the leading public theologians of his generation who truly understood the power of the Market and globalisation, and its ongoing impact on the way we live. His was a tireless quest to the extract the hopeful and progressive potential of these epochal changes without sacrificing a commitment to empirical and critical thought. In the following extract from his last published article, Atherton considers the question of whether wellbeing has anything to do with material wealth.
Standards of living and health lie at the centre of our understanding of human wellbeing. Their story is the account of ‘the world of daily life’ (Bellah, 2011, p. 2); of the struggle to survive and improve life, the history of how people have managed ‘to make their lives better’ (Deaton, 2013, p. xiv). This is everybody’s agenda. It certainly should be at the heart of Christianity with the gospel’s aspiration, ‘that they might have life, and
have it more abundantly’ (John 10.10, kjv). Historically, its record of promoting greater wellbeing has been mixed in practice and even more in theory, particularly since 1800 when the Industrial and then Mortality Revolutions began spreading their beneficial consequences across the world. So much of Christianity’s theory and practice was framed before 1800 that it lacked tools to engage such progressive change, especially economic change and economics.
The account of the sudden growth of income and therefore of living standards
from 1800 for Deaton represents ‘perhaps the greatest escape in all of human history, and certainly the most rapid one’. The economics of such material wellbeing is measured by incomes, with money as reasonable indicator of ‘people’s ability to buy the things on which material wellbeing depends’ (Deaton, 2013, p. 16). Income is therefore central to greater wellbeing as key component of food, clothing and housing, but also as facilitator of other aspects of wellbeing, including education, healthcare, participatory governance, welfare and society. Economists measure such progress across nations by increases in per capita income (the Gross National Product – GNP – divided by population). Such a
consideration of increasing incomes is related to decreasing poverty but also increasing inequality.
First, the historic increase of income resulted from the Industrial Revolution’s ‘long-term and continuing economic growth’ (Deaton, 2013, p. 34). From 1820 to 1992 the world’s inhabitants’ average income grew between seven and eight times, constituting a ‘historically unprecedented increase in living standards’ (Deaton, 2013, pp. 4–5, 167). In the USA, leader of this revolution, per capita income rose from $8,000 in 1929 to $43,238 in 2012, an amazing fourfold increase in only 80 years and the result of economic growth of 1.9% per annum, astonishing to our ancestors, but not to us (Deaton, 2013, p. 170).
Second, decreasing poverty was one of the greatest consequences of increasing incomes. So between 1820 and 1992 the fraction of the world’s population in extreme poverty dropped from 84% to 24% (Deaton, 2013, p. 167). This achievement was nothing to do with liberation theology!
Third, increasing inequality, the classic indicator of great divergences, of paradoxes of development, accompanied these progressive changes in incomes and poverty. Such income inequality since the Industrial Revolution has occurred particularly between nations. The wealthiest countries are 256 times richer than the poorest (Deaton, 2013, p. 20). Inequalities within nations, like the USA, have returned to rapidly accelerating processes since the 1970s. In the USA, the bottom 90% is ‘barely holding onto the living standards of its parents’ (Deaton, 2013, pp. 189, 205). The real gains have been made particularly by the top 1%. Nobel economist Stiglitz has summarized these developments in Vanity Fair: ‘Of the 1%, for the 1%, by the 1%’ (Stiglitz, 2012, p. xxxix).
To grasp the nature and extent of these transformations it is best to locate them in historical contexts. In 1798, Thomas Malthus published the Essay on the Principle of Population with its thesis that expanding populations increasingly outstrip the growth in food, shelter and clothing necessary to resource them. That gap could only be closed by education or morality (meaning marrying later, so having fewer children), or by starvation, war, disease. This Malthusian Trap operated throughout history from 14000 BC to AD 1800. So the world of daily life was shaped by one factor, ‘in the long run births had to equal deaths’ (Clark, 2007, p. 19). Before 1800, rates of technological advance were so low that incomes could not escape the Malthusian equilibrium. The only way to improve living standards was to lower population levels by reducing fertility or increasing mortality. Average living standards meant living ‘a pinched and straightened existence’ (Clark, 2007, p. 38), working every hour God sent you, with a poor diet so low in calories as to produce short people, often unable to work, with poor clothing, and living in crowded insanitary housing. That was the world before 1800, throughout secular and Christian history. That was what was changed by the Industrial Revolution breaking the Malthusian Trap, changing ‘forever the possibilities for
material consumption’ with all that brings for wellbeing (Clark, 2007, p. 2). So income per person began its inexorable rise, delivering billions out of poverty.
Importantly, this growth in income was not an isolated achievement in wellbeing. It related to Deaton’s other two features of wellbeing, health and subjective wellbeing, in that, generally speaking, higher incomes were associated with better health and subjective wellbeing. So better incomes and health over generations are reflected in increasing population heights. Before 1800, people were smaller, indicating calorific nutritional deficiencies, especially in childhood. The European male’s average height
in the mid-nineteenth century was 166.7cm; by 1980, it was 178.6cm (Deaton, 2013, pp. 158, 160). For Fogel, in eighteenth-century Britain, low calorific intakes meant meagre energy for work, low stature and high mortality rates. The Industrial Revolution brought higher incomes, and so higher calorific food intakes, greater wellbeing and stronger economic growth – what is referred to as the thermodynamic factor, constituting
30% of British economic growth since 1790 (Fogel, 2004, p. 33). It is these links between income, food, health and economic growth that illustrate the interaction between these central features of progressive human wellbeing.
Because of this centrality of material wellbeing to wellbeing in general, it is worth exploring debates in economics questioning this significance of increasing income for increasing wellbeing. These arguments are particularly relevant to conversations between Christianity and economics, with the former’s long history of critical suspicion of material wellbeing, money and consumption. Whatever wellbeing is about, it’s not about that at all for much of Christianity! There are two arguments over these matters in contemporary economics, relating to post-materialism and whether greater incomes make us happier.
First, arguments by economists over the emerging significance of a post-materialist age began in the mid-nineteenth century with J. S. Mill, founder of mainstream classical economics, and were repeated by reformer of the following neoclassical economics, J. M. Keynes, looking forward, in 1931, to the day when the ‘economic problem will take the
back seat where it belongs’ (Keynes, 1932, p. vi). Fogel argued more recently that ‘The touchstone of wellbeing … will be measured … in terms of the quality of health and the opportunity for self-realisation’, what he terms ‘spiritual rather than material resources’ (Fogel, 1997, p. 1905). But it was American political scientist Inglehart who argued that empirical evidence demonstrated the emergence of increasingly post-materialist societies in the USA and Europe. For him, post-materialist values have ‘tended to neutralise the emphasis on economic accumulation’ (Inglehart, 1988, p. 1203). This is obviously an appealing argument to the religious, being pro-spiritual and anti-economics/materialist. Yet on examining surveys from 1975–94 Easterlin found quite different trends reflecting the significance of the materialist in relation to social concerns: ‘the percentage of people naming the materialist response as part of the good life exceeded that of people giving the non-materialist response’ (the difference rose from 7 to 21% – suggesting clear shifts towards materialist values, not away from them) (Easterlin, 2004, p. 51). Deaton and Easterlin conclude, therefore, that the material remains of decisive importance for human wellbeing, as it always has been. Christianity needs to come to terms with that, but is not very good at it.
Second, economists like Easterlin and Layard have argued that subjective wellbeing as happiness does not increase with higher incomes, using surveys of nations with higher economic growth and income per capita. Again, this reinforces Christian opinion that happiness is not about higher incomes primarily. Yet research now points the other way in this highly contested relationship between income and subjective wellbeing. Within nations, richer people experience greater subjective wellbeing than poorer people. This is particularly the case with life satisfaction, indicating the relationship between higher incomes and life satisfaction as ‘remarkably similar’, ‘both at higher levels of incomes as at lower levels’ (Sacks, Stevenson and Wolfers, 2012, p. 67). This overturns the orthodoxy
of Layard that increasing happiness only benefits lower incomes, say about $10,000, so above that increasing incomes does not produce increasing happiness (Easterlin, 2004, pp. 23–31; Layard, 2005, p. 33). This new evidence also contradicts mainstream economic assumptions that the marginal wellbeing impact of ‘a dollar of income diminishes as
income increases’ (Sacks, Stevenson and Wolfers, 2012, p. 61).
Similarly, emotional wellbeing measures of happiness also indicate rises with nations’ average incomes, but the relationship is much weaker and less uniform than with life satisfaction. So Pakistanis and Kenyans experience greater such happiness than Danes and Italians. This limited relationship between income and experienced happiness also holds within rich economies like the USA. So beyond an income of $70,000 per annum,
‘additional money does nothing to improve happiness’, even though those
with more money report they have better lives (life evaluation) (Deaton, 2013, pp. 52–3). So money matters only up to a point for improving such happiness, leading Graham to talk of the ‘paradox of happy peasants and miserable millionaires’ (Graham, 2009). Higher incomes improve evaluations of life but not emotional wellbeing.
Given this new evidence that higher incomes are very significant for wellbeing, it is worth finally summarizing the nature and role of incomes in material wellbeing both in contemporary and historical contexts. Material wellbeing is ‘typically measured by income, the amount of money people have to spend or save’ (Deaton, 2013, p. 16). What Americans spend their money on can be divided between goods and services, income spent on goods constituting a third of the total in 2012, divided between durable goods, a third, say on cars, furniture, clothes, and non-durable goods, say on food (7.5% rising to 13% when you include food consumed away from home). In terms of services, the two largest items were housing and utilities, representing 18% of consumer expenditure,
and healthcare at 16%. These income-resourced expenditures represent ‘the stuff of material wellbeing’ (Deaton, 2013, pp. 171–2). Yet many often criticize such bedrocks of life. ‘Spending more, we are often told, does not bring us better lives, and religious authorities regularly warn against materialism’ (Deaton, 2013, p. 172). Yet such opinions
neglect the enormous benefit for human wellbeing of the escape from the Malthusian Trap which dominated and scarred most lives for most of human history.
The French historian Braudel’s three-volumed Civilization and Capitalism, 15th–18th Century, traces the evolution of such material wellbeing up to the Industrial Revolution. The first volume engages The Structures of Everyday Life, classically centred on the historically continuing bases of material wellbeing, food, clothing and housing, from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century (and for most of history) (Braudel, 1981, 1982, 1984). It was these material essentials for wellbeing that were transformed by the Industrial Revolution, even though they still form the basis of current income expenditure. It is this story of dramatic contemporary change in material wellbeing, say from 1870 to the present, that has been charted in US history by Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The US Standard of Living Since the Civil War. Life in 1870 was closer to the Malthusian Trap. What happened after turned the whole world of material wellbeing upside down profoundly for the better. In 1870, Boston had 250,000 citizens sharing the streets with 50,000 horses (Gordon, 2016, p. 48)! Women carried water and fuel into the house and took sewage and ashes out. The labour extended to cooking on fires, hand washing clothes, making clothes, and was immense. Then came two revolutions in 1879, Edison’s electric light and Benz’s internal combustion engine, transforming life for ever, along with the production of nutritious safe food and drink and good cheap clothing (the rise of mail catalogues and department stores) and the connectivity of housing in terms of piped clean water, sanitation systems, electricity and electrical appliances, central heating and then air conditioning, and telephones representing continuing advances in communications. And from the house, the car and then the aeroplane opened the world to all with incomes. It is an astonishing story of the development of material wellbeing.
Material wellbeing is intimately linked to incomes or money. It is the former that dominates economic understandings, but the undue focus on the latter has led Christians, especially theologians and church leaders, to at best profound misunderstandings of material wellbeing and income.
The full version of this article can be found in Theology for Changing Times: John Atherton and the Future of Public Theology, published later this month. Edited by Christopher Baker and Elaine Graham, the book includes contributions from Hilary Russell, Peter Sedgwick and Anna Ruddick, as well as from Atherton himself.
There’s still time to book on to the launch of the book from 5:30pm on Monday October 1st at Manchester Cathedral. Tickets are free. To find out more and book your ticket, click here.