Why is Gregg Easterbrook So Unhappy?


Gregg Easterbrook is in a tizzy over my review of his book in yesterday's Washington Post. He petulantly refuses to link to my piece, though.

This isn't too surprising since it would help readers see through his comedic frustration over the fact that one of my critiques allegedly falls into that hoary–and frustrating, I know, having been on the receiving end of many of them myself–gripe that a book or article isn't about something other than what it was intended to be about. Here's what Easterbrook says:

The Post reviewer intones that my book's "most serious lack" is that "when assessing the prospects for the human weal, it is as important to wonder why we are rich as it is to wonder why we aren't happy." The reviewer complains that the economic mechanisms Western nations use to produce material abundance should have been stressed. Western economic theory was not stressed because–brace yourself–the book is about something else. How the Western system produces high standards of living would be a plenty interesting topic for, let's say, a book whose subject is how the Western system produces high standards of living. The Progress Paradox concerns another subject, namely, why people live better all the time, yet are no happier. "'This book fails to be about a different topic'–The Washington Post." Hmm, maybe Random House can use that as a blurb.

Since he doesn't continue his quote or give a link to my piece, the reader of his blog entry wouldn't know that right before the part he quotes, I wrote:

Polls he cites attest that, in 1997, 66 percent of Americans believed the lot of the average person was getting worse. I suspect that the only way people could believe this is that they have no understanding of how and why market economies in the West deliver as they do, and why there is no reason to expect them to stop now.

They also wouldn't know I went on to write, after the quote he does use:

Being rich doesn't necessarily make you happy, but relief from physical deprivation can be a good thing in and of itself. If you had only this book as a guide, you wouldn't necessarily realize that the amazing wealth of the West was anything other than some sort of automatic miracle, cruelly denied others by fickle fate. (I don't think Easterbrook believes this, but his book doesn't stress otherwise.) Many Americans do have that attitude, and it is easy to be discomfited by a seemingly mysterious providence that could depart as swiftly as it came, or, worse, one based on evil motives, or that is actively destroying the planet—widespread beliefs regarding modern capitalism.

What I am saying, then, is that not understanding why we are rich plays a large role in why many of us are unhappy. Thus, the sentence of mine that Easterbrook writes off as irrelevant to his topic is, I am positing, completely relevant, and sadly ignored, by his book. He may disagree with, and may be able to marshal arguments against, this contention. However, he implies that my statement took us into realms far afield from what his book was concerned with, which is not true. Not that he has given his readers a chance to check that for themselves.