George Will Misses the Point:

George Will critiques the now-ubiquitous election campaign question, "Are you better off" and concludes that it is short-sighted by failing to capture the full human experience as to what it means to be "better off":

In contemporary politics, nothing succeeds like excess, so permutations of Reagan's trope are going to recur. Therefore, it is time to consider its deficiencies, which are symptomatic of a desiccated mentality.

Unfortunately, the phrase "better off" is generally understood as a reference to your salary, your bank balance, your IRA and the like. But wait. Are you better off being four years older? That depends.

If you are young, since 2004 you might have found romance, had children, learned to fly-fish and become a Tampa Bay Rays fan. In which case you emphatically are better off, even if since 2004 there has been only a 0.6 percent increase -- yes, increase -- in the median value of single-family homes.


Suppose in those years you read "Middlemarch," rediscovered Fred Astaire's movies, took up fly-fishing, saw Chartres and acquired grandchildren. Even if the value of your stock portfolio is down since 2004 (the Dow actually is up), are you not decidedly better off?


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.

Will is correct, of course, that economic statistics don't capture the elements of life that determine whether we are better off or worse off.

But his column misses the point as the question is asked in the context of a political campaign. There is an obvious unspoken qualifier to the question, which should be understood if read in context, "Are you better off with respect to the things that the government could do to improve your life." The government can't make you read (and gain happiness from) Middlemarch or Fred Astaire movies. The government can help to produce peace, security, and prosperity (sometimes, of course, by doing nothing at all). It is that sense, which I think most everyone understands, that "Are you better off?" is a perfectly reasonable and appropriate question to ask.