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Honoring Dick Easterlin

The Bonn-based Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) has just announced that this year’s winner of its annual prize in labor economics is happiness researcher Richard Easterlin.
This is a wonderful prize. Dick was the first economist to start taking subjective well-being data seriously. While this sort of research is now pretty mainstream, I have to imagine that it took a fair bit of courage back in the early 1970’s. Indeed, his most famous early paper on happiness was originally published as a book chapter; hundreds of citations later, one hopes that previously critical journal editors now see the error of this early skepticism.
But Dick has done more than simply light the spark of this research program; he has nurtured the field along, patiently helping younger researchers along the way. In fact, IZA Director Klaus Zimmermann said that “The economic analysis of well-being would not have been possible without his contributions.” Zimmerman is right. And I’m one of many who has benefited from Dick’s interest in seeing the field grow, as his research has been the inspiration for much of my own interest in the economics of happiness. And ever the patient colleague, he’s been very free in sharing his expertise over the years.
Right now, Dick and I currently disagree on a pretty important issue — whether economic development can play an important role in raising subjective well-being. In fact, arguably his most famous claim, the “Easterlin Paradox,” is a claim that economic development won’t raise happiness. This yields the startling conclusion that policymakers shouldn’t bother trying to raise G.D.P. Betsey Stevenson and I have argued that this may have been a reasonable reading of the data in the early 1970’s, but the accumulation of data since make it clear that economic development is a powerful force in raising well-being. The debate’s still not settled, but even though the stakes are high, the wonderful thing about debating a fellow like Dick Easterlin is that you know you’ll learn a lot along the way. We can be friends, yet still challenge each other in thinking through these issues.
And I can’t help but conclude with a remarkable aside about Dick. If you’ve ever met him, he’s the most remarkably active and engaged fellow you’ll meet — which is why I was startled to learn that he was chair of the U. Penn economics department way back in 1958. But over 40 years later at age 83, he’s still researching as strongly as ever, critiquing the work of others vigorously, and he takes seriously his role as the father of an important research program. He’s not only an intellectual inspiration, but also a personal inspiration: I can only hope to be half as productive as Dick in my early 80’s.