Mar 25, 2018Posted by on
Google provide a programme called the Ngram Viewer, which enables the tracing of words or phrases as they have been used in books over the centuries. At a recent regular meeting with an ex-colleague of mine, we discussed wealth, prosperity and happiness, in the context of growth and inequality. The problem withe Ngram is the context in which the words are being used, by whom, when and for what purpose.
Google books provided a link to the following extract that appeared in the 1829 ‘Edinburgh Review, Critical Journal’ and while the term ‘political class‘ was in use in 1829, it could be said that the mid to late 1980’s introduced its exponential rise in usage.
Does Mr Bentham profess to hold out any new motive which may induce men to promote the happiness of the species to which they belong? Not at all. He distinctly admits that, if he is asked why governments should attempt to produce the greatest possible happiness, he can give no answer. ‘ The real answer,’ says he, ‘ appeared to be, that men at large ought not to allow a government to afflict them with more evil or less good than they can help. Edinburgh Review, or Critical Journa
What interested me was the use the Ngram Viewer to consider the terms that I had used in relation to inequality. I wondered what happened circa 1875 when consideration of the word happiness fell significantly below that of wealth and would have fallen below ‘prosperity’ had it not also fallen. At the same time the use of the term growth grew at a very fast rate and circa 1925 could be taken as being synonymous with the term ‘economic growth’.
While the Ngram Viewer is interesting it raises the question of misinterpreting the data — particularly if the x and y axis are ignored — and (for example) the increasing use of the word happiness may reflect more on book sales than people’s well being. It looks as though the terms ‘prosperity’ and ‘inequality’ have become equal in their use and are still at a very low level of use compared to ‘economic growth’ usage.
I decided to look at changes in my lifetime to some of the terms being written about relating to ‘technology, social responsibility‘ and economic growth‘. Social responsibility is on the rise (albeit very small), while economic growth is falling (clearly dependant on its relationship to the uses of the words ‘growth’ and ‘economics’). During my lifetime technology has become a major consideration, so finally I looked at a number of the terms used during my lifetime that could be related to global inequality and here’s what I found.