Was 2020 a good year?

There are many different ways of answering this question:

1. It was a bad year because all years are bad years, full of human misery. (I’ve been reading Schopenhauer.)

2. It was among the top 1% of the 5000 years of human history, and we are all just a bunch of crybabies. Global per capita income has rarely been higher, life expectancy is near the all time high, and human freedom is better than the vast majority of years.

3. Absolute income doesn’t matter; our happiness is based on how we are doing relative to the recent past. Thus it was a very depressing year.

4. Actually, per capita disposable income was pretty high in 2020, due to massive government transfers. Many adults and students secretly preferred being home, avoiding bullying by schoolmates and rude drivers on the freeway. I had an excuse not to have to fly across the country to meetings at my office in DC. You avoided having to debate your uncle about Trump at Thanksgiving dinner. We gave up bowling leagues decades ago because we prefer sitting at home watching Netflix.

5. Humans are a social animal and hence 2020 was one of the worst years in human history. Even medieval peasants had a happier life, as they got to socialize with their friends. The past year was an inhuman dystopian nightmare, one even Hollywood could not imagine.

6. No one has a clue as to how to answer this question. Because our brains are wired to fool ourselves into chasing goals that don’t make us happy, we don’t really even know how happy we are, much less the happiness of the 7.8 billion humans that we never, ever meet. We are fools.

Me? I believe all 6 claims are plausible.

Happy New Year.



26 Responses to “Was 2020 a good year?”

  1. Gravatar of anon/portly anon/portly
    1. January 2021 at 11:52

    “Me? I believe all 6 claims are plausible.”

    #5 isn’t remotely plausible, but it does make me wish we could bring Harry Truman back from the grave to make a joke about a Schopenhauer-reading economist.

    #6 (or something like it) is just an obvious truism, part of what almost any good or great novel is trying to get at, or explore.

  2. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    1. January 2021 at 13:51

    anon, “Great novels” also suggest that #5 is in doubt. Novels written long ago, depicting a society much poorer than today’s, do not depict societies that seem less happy than in today’s novels.

  3. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    1. January 2021 at 14:10


    Happy New Year to you as well.

    I think you nailed the overview.

    #4 was most true for me personally for most of 2020. I’m more of an introvert, I was so glad that I didn’t had to find excuses anymore why I don’t go here and there more often. No more shaking hands either. Basically I was able to continue my life 1:1 as before the pandemic, but without the justifications. That made me happier.

    I often tell the truth, I’m an introvert and I like to be alone, but the justifications alone are kind of exhausting and one gets the impression that 50% of the population think you’re crazy. The other half seems to get it though.

    For many people I met, #3 was true. For the last few days I’ve been sicker than I’ve been since at least 20 years, some viral infection. I feel dead sick, Corona rapid tests were negative, but the German tests don’t seem to be very good either. So I now know how other parts of the population must have felt during 2020.

    Germany brought the first vaccine to the market, but a total incompetence clusterfuck at the hundred bureaucratic levels of Germany and the EU has ensured that there is currently a massive vaccine shortage in the EU.

    We are hardly making any progress with vaccination. Israel has already vaccinated 10% of its population, in a few days, with our vaccine!!!

    I am a physician who works in an office specialized in Covid-19, and even I get the vaccine only at the end of January at best, maybe February or March, the politicians and authorities have said. These people know nothing, they can only manage their incompetence. I am incredibly angry right now.

    Why should I even go to work anymore!? These politicians and bureaucrats are risking my life. I’m thinking about staying at home right now, until I finally get my vaccination. No more work on the Covid-19 front without vaccination. We doctors and nurses are once again the fools of the nation.

    I feel most sorry for the nurses. Their work is incredibly hard, and now they haven’t even been vaccinated for weeks, even though the vaccine was developed in Germany.

    Mr. Sahin from Biontech already said a few weeks ago that he had offered the EU at least 100 million doses more, ready in the first three months of 2021, but the EU refused!

    It saved them 10 billion euros. Germany alone just throws out 1500 billion euros for short-time work and other support money for the economy, they even replace the revenue, Scott. Can you imagine this as an economist? These politicians are so incompetent they replace the revenue with my tax money!

    But 10 billion for a vaccine that saves us, was too much for them. That’s where these idiots think they can “save” money.

    The complete lockdown, of course, is extended indefinitely because we don’t have enough vaccine doses. If you were to invent this, you would be laughed at, saying it was unrealistic, no one could be that stupid and incompetent.

    It is rumored that the French also wanted to make industrial policy in this deadly crisis and involve Sanofi, although it was known quite well at the time that the vaccine of Sanofi does not advance and that it might be ready at the very earliest at the end (!) of 2021, if ever.

    There is incredible corruption and incompetence in the EU, and I can only congratulate the UK once again on their Brexit.

  4. Gravatar of Peter Peter
    1. January 2021 at 15:16

    I think it’s a Russian saying that goes, “On average we live pretty well- worse than last year, but certainly better than next year.”

  5. Gravatar of Dan Dan
    1. January 2021 at 16:44

    Excellent post Scott!

  6. Gravatar of henry henry
    1. January 2021 at 16:59

    It’s never a good year when your country is being overrun by communists.

    Freedom gives you a chance to pursue happiness.

    Big government mandates do not.

  7. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    1. January 2021 at 22:30

    Happy New Year Scott,

    I was happy too to work from home. I miss socializing, but frankly, the modern world was always bad at true social contacts. They never felt much better to me than a Zoom meeting. I am comparing this to the warmth and connection I felt earlier in my life. Then I lived in developing countries when even phones wouldn’t work properly and there were constant real life issues. I am talking about constant risk of infectious disease, shortage of goods, water and electricity getting cut off at random etc. It’s under these conditions that I was happiest. Your social bonds were a vital necessity and as a result, they were strong. Objectively of course, actual risk to life and happiness, and occasional extreme unhappiness with disease etc, was far worse than the ultra-developed conditions I am enjoying now. So, I don’t want to go back. But social life was absolutely better there.

    On 2020: The thought crossed my mind that 2020 was very good for quite a few areas.

    1. Biotech. That one is obvious. The boost in research and delivery capability could be useful in the future as well, when a worse disease than Covid emerges.

    2. Wars. I strongly suspect that a bunch of wars were not started in 2020 due to Covid. No one dared.

    3. CO2: this is a funny one. With air traffic collapsing almost completely, and other production and transport taking a partial break, world CO2 production must have taken a severe hit. Yet, apparently the signal in atmospheric CO2 or climate is… not visible. Interesting natural experiment.

    3. International relations. While “the world” did nearly zero international collaboration, they were all too busy to really accuse each other of wrongdoing either. Everyone was pretty much busy fixing their own problems. As they should.

    4. Various other technology and social enhancements, from virtual meetings, work-from-home, to take-out food. Many sectors really experienced development here.


    I am also puzzled by the EU’s incoherent logistic planning. But as usual, and as with the refugee crisis, I blame too little integration, not too much. So you have an added layer of decision making, but that layer doesn’t actually have power over the planning. Incompetence generally seems to be a thing these days all over Europe, don’t think this is an EU thing. Do you believe Germany would have made better bureaucratic decisions w/o the EU? Frankly, when I look at the Brexit chaos and response to Covid before the vaccine, the UK seems to have gotten this right through sheer luck – at least they’re getting the vaccine phase right now. Also – wishing you speedy recovery, sorry to hear about your personal situation.

  8. Gravatar of Rajat Rajat
    1. January 2021 at 23:01

    I’m surprised that as a global-thinking market monetarist, you didn’t immediately come down on 2020 being a bad year. I expected you to place greater weight on: (a) outcomes relative to 2019 expectations and (b) outcomes outside rich countries where most of the world lives. Relative to expectations on 31 December 2019, I think 2020 would be considered a bad year, especially in the third world where fewer citizens would’ve enjoyed the offsetting benefits of more work from home. Plus, as one who believes that deficits have an opportunity cost even with zero real rates, I expected you to downplay the path of disposable incomes given that transfers will need to be be paid for at some point in the future. The fact is that the world suffered a major real shock that has made most of us poorer. And although you reframed the question from good or bad to ‘happiness’, either way, as economists, if we are not reasonably confident that a negative global output and employment shock is a bad thing, we should be doing something else with our lives.

    Incidentally, I’m not hugely convinced by the idea that Covid has spurred innovation that may fuel stronger future growth and get the world out of the great stagnation. One could make similar arguments for defence spending, wars and the space race. But the side benefits from such frolics – if any – are too unpredictable and unascertainable to confidently assess them to have been ‘worthwhile’.

  9. Gravatar of Spencer B. Hall Spencer B. Hall
    2. January 2021 at 05:02

    Occam’s razor is a copout. The only tool, credit control device, at the disposal of the monetary authority in a free capitalistic system through which the volume of money can be properly controlled is legal reserves. The FED will obviously, some time in the future, lose control of the money stock.

  10. Gravatar of Spencer B. Hall Spencer B. Hall
    2. January 2021 at 05:05

    Overall inflation is accelerating because long-term monetary flows are accelerating:
    07/1/2020 ,,,,, 0.65
    08/1/2020 ,,,,, 0.68
    09/1/2020 ,,,,, 0.68
    10/1/2020 ,,,,, 0.76
    11/1/2020 ,,,,, 0.86
    12/1/2020 ,,,,, 1.19
    01/1/2021 ,,,,, 1.24 Plateau?
    02/1/2021 ,,,,, 1.20
    03/1/2021 ,,,,, 1.14
    04/1/2021 ,,,,, 1.18
    05/1/2021 ,,,,, 1.14
    06/1/2021 ,,,,, 1.12
    07/1/2021 ,,,,, 1.13
    08/1/2021 ,,,,, 1.12
    The problem with economists is that they have dissected the distributed lag effect in nominal terms. You have to “break it down”. New money will find a home.

  11. Gravatar of Tim Worstall Tim Worstall
    2. January 2021 at 06:57

    “Even medieval peasants had a happier life, as they got to socialize with their friends.”

    I’d even argue with that one. A medieval peasant might live in a hamlet of, say, 30 to 40 adults. “Friend” and “Bloke Next Door” are therefore pretty much synonyms.

    It’s only when the potential social circle gets very much larger that the concept of friend rather than neighbour has all that much meaning.

  12. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    2. January 2021 at 09:13

    Christian, The Euro exposed one problem with the European welfare state, and Covid exposed another.

    Peter, Good one!

    mbka, My dad said his experience during WWII (in England) represented some of the best years of his life.

    Rajat, Good comment; I was sort of catering to the biases of my readers. But my #3 was close to your point.

    Tim, It’s all about hedonic set points—what do we expect out of life?

  13. Gravatar of David S David S
    2. January 2021 at 10:26

    Happy New Year Scott!

    Since the normal “bobsled” trolls aren’t commenting (credit to anon-portly) I’ll try to goad Scott into commenting on some predictions for 2021.

    -Biden is sworn in as president on January 20 with minimal bloodshed.
    -McConnell will stop any additional relief measures.
    -Biden will roll back most of Trump’s foreign policy, but try to use tariffs* on China as bargaining chip for….almost nothing.
    -Despite standard D.C. gridlock Q2 and Q3 NGDP will be impressive–say 5% to 7%– which will have the effect of inspiring unity among Republicans to start beating the inflation/deficit drums.
    -Paul Ryan will come crawling back to help beat these drums.
    -Fed will implement a Q3 hike of 25 basis points. Scott will be mildy critical of this action.
    -Trump will diminish in importance, but he and Ivanka will continue laying haphazard groundwork for a Florida based political dynasty that will end up going nowhere.
    -California will collapse into fiery anarchy and Scott will decamp for…Texas?

  14. Gravatar of PG PG
    2. January 2021 at 10:40

    Happiness is not a goal; it’s a symptom (of pleasing our evolutionarily-driven subconscious minds). The real question is not whether we are more happy, but whether we are achieving our long-term goals.

    In that framework, I think the normalization of remote work and the accelerated disillusion with institutions are probably the most important aspects of 2020. Both of these trends have the potential to help the vast majority of humanity living in the developing world.

    Winners: nontraditional narratives, volatility, humanity
    Losers: institutions, value, rent-seekers

  15. Gravatar of Rajat Rajat
    2. January 2021 at 14:05

    Btw, I read Bryan Magee’s Confessions of a Philiosopher over 20 years ago and I think he found his answers to the meaning of life in Shopenhauer.

  16. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    2. January 2021 at 17:53

    Well, it’s 2021 now, but already a great year for bananarama.

    Ted Cruz is a sitting US Senator, held in high regard by many. Supporter of Market Monetarism, btw.

    “Sen. Ted Cruz and 10 other Republican senators will join Sen. Josh Hawley’s attempt Wednesday to block the certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory — and will demand an emergency audit of the results in states where voter fraud has been alleged.”

    OK, that’s 12 US Senators suggesting something was fishy or fraudulent about the 2020 election. They are all nuts?

    YouTube is banning videos that suggest the election was fraudulent.

    Who are the foxes and who are the hens? Or are there only pigs in play?

  17. Gravatar of Jaroslav Hasek Jaroslav Hasek
    2. January 2021 at 20:33

    I was happy that 2020 had regular updates to this blog. Appreciate the posts!

    I also meme’d this post if you would like to try and go viral. https://imgflip.com/i/4sdkoy

  18. Gravatar of anon/portly anon/portly
    2. January 2021 at 20:36

    “Novels written long ago, depicting a society much poorer than today’s, do not depict societies that seem less happy than in today’s novels.”

    This is probably just over my head, but I don’t understand what this has to do with the suggestion that because “man is a social animal” it means that 2020 could have been “an inhuman dystopian nightmare.”

    Maybe characters in novels that seem to live with a greater degree of isolation from their fellows, tend to be unhappier (or maybe they don’t), but I don’t think there’s a general tendency for novelists to depict such characters in “nightmarish” terms. Like everything else, it’s complicated.

    I think that a character in s novel set in 2020 will be equally likely to be happier (the routine has been disrupted, freeing the self etc) as unhappier.

    But just taking a stab, really.

  19. Gravatar of BC BC
    3. January 2021 at 05:00

    I think of 2020 as primarily a wasted year, a year in which not much happened other than sleeping, eating (at home, of course), internet surfing, TV watching, and physically ageing. For complacent people, I suspect Scott’s #4 is not too far off.

    For most people age mid-30s and older, a “wasted” year is probably pretty close to a normal year, especially if they are already married. “Wasting” 1/30th of the years between age 35-65 is probably not that big a deal for most people. Students, both K-12 and college, probably missed out the most by wasting a year (25% of high school and college experience, most of high school senior year experience, 10-20% of childhood activities like sports). Single people, especially single women whose biological clocks are ticking, lost one year to find a mate, about 10% of years between age 25-35. Active retirees lost one year of active retirement, about 5-10% of years from 65 to 75-85. Early career professionals lost a year of professional development as work-from-home doesn’t work as well for training/mentorship, about 20-25% of first 4-5 years (?) of early career development.

  20. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    3. January 2021 at 10:01

    David, Good predictions. While I expect the rate hike to come earlier than expected, I don’t think it will be that early.

    And Orange County will be fine, even if LA goes up in flames. 🙂

    PG, You said:

    “The real question is not whether we are more happy, but whether we are achieving our long-term goals.”

    But aren’t our goals kind of pointless?

    Rajat, I haven’t read much philosophy, but Schopenhauer is VERY impressive. (Impressive as an artist, I view philosophy as an art form.) Is it “true”? Who knows? And who cares.

    Jaroslav, Thanks, but perhaps I should have been briefer.

    anon, I was just addressing what I thought was your implication, that because medieval peasants were poor they could not possibly be as happy as us. I agree that isolation is not necessarily utility reducing.

    BC, You said:

    “I think of 2020 as primarily a wasted year, a year in which not much happened other than sleeping, eating (at home, of course), internet surfing, TV watching, and physically ageing.”

    After reading Schopenhauer, I wonder if that’s true of all years.

  21. Gravatar of Kate Kate
    3. January 2021 at 10:58

    What I’ve discovered about the “best years” of one’s life is that they always occur for people when they are young adults 🙂 So you get ppl saying WWII was the best years of their lives, or living through Russia’s hunger waves was the best years of their lives, etc. But the common thread is always the same. There’s nothing particularly attractive or romantic about adversity. There is no great secret of soul being shared here. It’s merely the fact that people are nostalgic for feeling attractive, happy, and free of obligations. Watch. In another 20 years ppl will be waxing lyrical about 2020, too.

  22. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    3. January 2021 at 16:53


    some truth to that in more general ways, but my “best” experience spanned high school, a period many people experience as miserable. At least that seems so for Americans, which I am not. Later I was miserable the first years of college (which many Americans seem to remember fondly). Later, I was happy again in tight knit situations (on board ship, or some expedition style experiences) and “meh” again in normal life situations. My conclusion: what works for humans is, small group size, possibly a common goal, external threats present, collaboration vital. Basically hunter and gatherer environment. The adversity bonds the group together and the group needs to be small enough to feel as an ersatz family. Same reason why young people from dysfunctional families join gangs. Gangs fill the emotional void.

  23. Gravatar of anon/portly anon/portly
    3. January 2021 at 22:49

    “anon, I was just addressing what I thought was your implication, that because medieval peasants were poor they could not possibly be as happy as us. I agree that isolation is not necessarily utility reducing.”

    I certainly didn’t mean to imply that!

    Actually 2020 did have aspects that I would regard as “dystopian,” perhaps in mild form. I found many things especially depressing this year:

    1. The riots, and some of the other post-Floyd “moral panic” type stuff.

    2. The crazy post-election stuff from Trump and his acolytes.

    3. Wokeness – I got to experience it “close up and personal.”

    4. The Covid death toll.

    5. The public health bureaucratic response….

    Anyway I was skeptical of #5 because for me “social isolation” doesn’t make the top five in terms of “nightmarish & dystopian things about 2020.”

  24. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    4. January 2021 at 00:43


    In the world’s least affordable housing market, one in eight homes sold is a nano apartment, a term widely used to describe tiny homes in Hong Kong.

    A record 13% of apartments sold in 2019 were less than 260 square feet (24 square meters), or smaller than two car-parking spaces, according to a report by Liber Research Community released Monday. These tiny units accounted for just 0.2% of total sales in 2010.


    Wel, things could be worse. You could live in Hong Kong.

    Government in the Far East usually works with business, and in this case, the property business.

  25. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    4. January 2021 at 13:51

    Kate, I agree, but sometimes those really are the best years.

    Anon, My list wasn’t so much a “top 6” as it was six different versions of one (unknown) reality.

  26. Gravatar of David David
    5. January 2021 at 01:53

    What a great post!

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