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How Economies Grow Through Light History : Planet Money : NPR

By James Yang for NPR

Take the final summer school quiz here

Our latest episode is also the biggest yet of Planet Money 2022 Summer School. And we’re about to celebrate graduation! (If you pass the test). So abandon seniority and open your mind to the biggest question of all: what causes human progress?

The short answer: what economists call productivity.

Productivity is the economic measure of what we are able to produce over a given period of time. It is one of the central ideas of economics because it has a huge impact on our quality of life.

Higher productivity means, first and foremost, that we have access to the same or even better goods and services without working as much. This has all kinds of positive consequences. Lower prices, higher overall production, and (at least in theory) more free time! This does not mean that the winnings will be shared equally, and we will talk about that as well.

So how can we as a society become richer and better off? The great arbiter of economic productivity is technology. It is what allows us to do more in less time, to create new things or new experiences, to spend less time working and more relaxing.

For our last course of the summer, light: a case study in productivity. Thousands of years ago, people lived in terrifying darkness after sunset. Artificial light was so difficult to produce that in cities around the world it was a luxury that, at first, few people had access to indoors for long periods of time. But now look, we are rich with light at all hours. We look at how productivity has made light an inescapable part (no pun intended) of our daily lives to see what lessons we can learn for human progress in general.


  • Productivity gains
  • Technology
  • Work/leisure compromise
  • 15 hour work week

Music: Welcome to California, Instant in the sun, Where did you go?, Pump and circumstance & summer anthem

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Rodney N.

The author Rodney N.