What is progress and what is not progress? We can talk about progress in lots of different arenas; we will focus primarily on economic and scientific progress, but also make brief reference to cultural and moral progress. In our discussion, we want to distinguish, especially, between overall, long-term progress and narrower, shorter-term progress or regress. We will refer to these as “global” and “local” progress, respectively. Of course, one can also regress; therefore, we will also look at instances where progress, along some dimension, slows or even moves backwards. Generally, such regress is local, and often still in a context of broader, global progress. In scientific progress, for example, there are many instances of short-term progress which, if not completely discarded or disproved, are at least substantially modified or fundamentally challenged. And yet, those research paths, even when later abandoned, still contributed to the overall progress of the field. In that sense, the regress (that is, rejection or modification of previous theories) is corrected by, but not in conflict with, the overall progress. In the case of economic progress, the concept of regress usually takes on a different form in which things that aren’t advancing progress don’t necessarily stop it, but are simply retarding progress — that is, making the rate of progress less efficient. The consequence, we suggest, is that when talking about economic progress, objections to certain consequences of economic progress (for instance, income inequality — a type of regress, in our terminology) should not be cordoned off and dealt with independently, but should be incorporated into the way we think about economic progress itself — as instances of local regress within a context of global progress. We explore the effects of these different relations between progress and regress to suggest some of the challenges those seeking to broaden the standard measure, GDP, to incorporate other social values of well-being will face moving forward.
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