Basic income, revisited: the Finns are on it!

Until recently, I lived and worked in Belgium, and benefitted from a benevolent state taking care of me. I received lunch vouchers for around €100 to €150 a month. Plus ‘ecological vouchers’ for organic products or train travel. Plus ‘sports and culture’ vouchers, for, well, sports and culture. My monthly contribution to the public insurance fund came in at a very modest €8,00, and my own contribution for most treatments was fairly low. Had I lost my job, there would be an expansive social security system where I could get support. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

Well, I spent my time in one of the most heavily taxed countries of the world. Relatedly, Belgium ranks on top of the list across the OECD as for the labour costs – income tax, and employees and employers’ social security contributions. Of the wage costs of a Belgian employer, over half account for income tax and social security contributions. Or in other words: it costs over €4,000 to have an employee with a take home pay of €2,000.

Tax wedges in OECD countries. Source: OECD

Tax wedges in OECD countries. Source: OECD

Basic income, revisited

Even if you agree with the noble goals, and despite the correlation between high taxes and happiness, wouldn’t it be a lot better to remove this money pumping function of the state? If a tax reform increased  my net salary by the same amount, I’d have happily foregone all my vouchers and started paying an amount closer to the real cost of my insurance. Sweet and simple!

Last year I already wrote about the possibility of using basic income as a tool to simplify social spending. At the time – just after the Swiss voted ‘no’ in a referendum on the subject – I saw the possibility to get rid of series of tax breaks and charges that have little more effect than creating employment for tax collectors on the one side and tax consultants on the other.

Two things made me revisit the issue. Firstly, the policy discussion on basic income has advanced: more studies have been produced, and Finland’s experiment is underway. Secondly, we are getting a better picture on how basic income can help us solving social problems around globalisation and automation (the robots are coming, and they may give us the cash we need!). Let’s me take the second issue in a later piece, and look at the policy discussion now.

The Finnish experiment

Finland’s national experiment with basic income launched in January 2017, and contrary to other recent tests has nationwide coverage. 2000 selected Finns now get a monthly sum of €560 – no questions asked. That’s a modest amount, compared to the €2,500 national average wage. It’s not universal basic income per se, though. The participants are all unemployed; typical employees and billionaires don’t get basic income. Kela, the Finnish social security body that organises the experiments, deducts basic income from other social spending, so that basic income mostly replaces existing tools. Despite these limits in scope, the basic income is fully unconditional: participants are free to spend the money any way they like.

While Kela is clear that conclusions will only be reported after the end of the experiment, initial feedback confirms earlier anecdotal evidence that basic income increases the sense of freedom and happiness. Vice went to speak to Juha Järvinen, an artist who feels basic income allows him to focus on what he enjoys: creating the shaman drums that he sells. For Järvinen, the money is not the main advantage of the experiment: “you need to be a magician to survive” on €560 a month in Finland. Instead, it’s the fact that the employment office is not at his back all the time that gives him a sense of liberation. The basic income provides a first basis that makes it easier to undertake the project he likes. He recognises that with this level of spending a beneficiary couldn’t simply be lazy and do nothing, as some adversaries of basic income fear.

Left-wing and right-wing basic income

The Finnish government is a centre-right one, and this is visible in the design of the experiment. Typically, many proponents of basic income are centre-left, focusing on the benefits basic income offers to personal freedom and development, and quality of life. From a left-wing perspective, basic income is about citizens’ rights and distribution of state means. Basic income could then be a tool to ensure that citizens have equal possibilities, and that people of poorer or minority groups are not worse off.

The centre-right perspective would rather emphasise simplification and reduction of state spending. Basic income could replace up to 100 tax incentives in the Finnish case. This is also a key condition to ensure that basic income remains affordable, they argue.

Can we pay it?

That begs the critical question: can we afford basic income? The low Finnish basic income is set up with affordability in mind. It’s not an easy question. The answer of the advocacy group, the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), boils down to ‘it depends‘: if we narrowly redistribute existing benefits, it could work. However, if we maintain all existing benefits and then add a broader basic income for everybody to live comfortable, governments will struggle to find the means.

Is basic income better than current social spending?

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) weighed into the debate via a study outlining a slightly different question: does basic income reduce poverty and increase equality? The study started with the observation that social expenditure is targeted in wildly different ways. As of 2013, the 20% richest in the average OECD country benefitted only marginally less from cash transfers than the 20% poorest. In most countries, the poor obviously benefitted more from transfers than the rich. But in a few countries, particular subsidies worked out in a net transfer from everybody else to the rich, including Greece, Italy, Poland, and Portugal.

Beneficiaries of cash transfers in OECD countries, 2013. Source: OECD

Beneficiaries of cash transfers in OECD countries, 2013. Source: OECD

So, does basic income do a better job? According to the OECD, it probably doesn’t. If basic income were to be set at the level of current spending -  a narrow basic income – it would remain below the poverty line across all OECD countries, sometimes staying far below. Not surprisingly, if you consider that at present only a share of the population benefits from public spending. As such, basic income would risk distributing from the poor to all. Then, it could draw similar criticism as some education grants do: funds paid for by the baker and the electrician to finance the career investment of the lawyer’s son.

Redistribution from the poor to all

Looking at modeling of how basic income could work in Finland, France, Italy, and the UK, the study finds that a narrow basic income indeed would not reduce poverty. Rather than sharing wealth, the changes in public expenditure would redistribute poverty along different lower-income groups. As such, simply pooling existing benefits and reallocating them as basic income is not the right solution. But there might be other ways – maybe robots could come to rescue? That, however, is a topic for another post. See you later!

The Netherlands: small happy cities in a ‘madly cool country’

The population of the Netherlands is two-faced. When we are among ourselves, we like to complain: about our politicians, the weather, taxes, the healthcare system, declines in fixed jobs, and immigration. In this year’s elections, parties with populist policies won over 25% of the vote.

While we tend to be pessimistic about society as a whole, most people are very satisfied with their own lives. Despite our complaints, the Netherlands is one of the happiest countries of the world. Indeed, when we speak to foreigners, we paint a proud picture of our country. We speak of the Netherlands as a country that is hard-working but not too serious, innovative, well-organised, and with high standards of life. PM Rutte’s daily job is to tell Dutchmen they live in a ‘waanzinnig gaaf land’, which means something as a ‘madly cool country’. A Financial Times feature just before the elections broadly supported the claim.

Indeed, if we look at the stats, it is fair to say ‘The Netherlands second’, as the viral video presenting the country to President Trump did this year did. Dutch economist Mathijs Bouman mapped the Netherlands’ performance on a range of indicators, comparing various rankings on competitiveness, innovation and human development. His conclusion? The Netherlands is the best country of the world, second only to… Switzerland. Only when the World Happiness Report was added, the Netherlands jumped over the United States to second place.

The Netherlands second. Source: Mathijs Bouman, http://mathijsbouman.nl/nederland-is-het-beste-land-ter-wereld-op-zwitserland-na/

The Netherlands second. Source: Mathijs Bouman, http://mathijsbouman.nl/nederland-is-het-beste-land-ter-wereld-op-zwitserland-na/

Happiness: the last frontier

With good scores on so many levels, it is time to reach the last frontier: make society even happier. And the Dutch are getting to business: over the last years, society’s happiness and alternative indicators have gained more attention in the Dutch public debate. Last year, the Dutch Parliament supported steps to create a ‘Monitor Broad Well-being’, to better assess quality of life in the Netherlands.

A happiness atlas

Researchers and marketeers are also spending time on the topic. Recently, a study crowned the central Netherlands town of Ede the happiest city of the Netherlands.

The Atlas of Municipalities, prepared with the support of the Happiness Research Centre of the University of Rotterdam, compared happiness levels in the 50 largest towns. Mid-sized towns like Ede, Apeldoorn and Gouda rank to the top, while most of the larger cities like Groningen, Amsterdam and The Hague are on the bottom of the table. Rotterdam, the second-largest city, even closes the list of 50. The map below outlines the top-10 in turquoise, and the bottom 1o in red.

This map shows cities ranked 1-10 (in turquoise) and 41-50 (in red) in the Atlas of Municipalities. Source: Trouw, based on data of the Atlas. https://www.trouw.nl/home/het-geluk-is-te-vinden-in-een-middelgrote-stad-ede~aeb4553a/

This map shows cities ranked 1-10 (in turquoise) and 41-50 (in red) in the Atlas of Municipalities. Source: Trouw, based on data of the Atlas.
https://www.trouw.nl/home/het-geluk-is-te-vinden-in-een-middelgrote-stad-ede~aeb4553a/

What is happiness, anyway?

Let’s dig in a little bit deeper into what this all means. First of all, what is happiness anyway? For the purposes of the study, it is “the extent to which an individual find satisfaction in their own life as a whole”. ‘Happiness’ is then measured via three metrics: an overall judgement of a respondent’s life satisfaction as a whole, the extent to which one is a happy human being, and the extent to which one felt happy in the last four weeks. Ede overall scored best at this, with 89% of the local population scoring at least an average of 7 out of 10 among the three.

Second, how is Ede different than others? The researchers identified seven factors that account for the differences in happiness levels across Ede and the other cities. These, include the size and composition of the population, the employment rate, health, religion, and the attractiveness of life in the city. That however doesn’t mean that Ede is the only city doing well on those factors, or on happiness. Overall, smaller cities tend to perform better than bigger ones: here, life is less chaotic, while there is more on offer than on the countryside.

Marginal differences

The differences between cities appear quite marginal and probably are not statistically significant. 17 out of the 50-sample score 88 or 89%, no fewer than 42 are in the 85-89% bucket, and even number last Rotterdam houses 82% of happy people. As such, the meaning of being ranked first, second, or even thirtieth, is fairly limited.

Other indices in the Atlas convey this point even more. The happiness index is only an annual theme of the Atlas, which annually compares cities on a range of metrics. Some of these metrics are pooled into indices, for instance mapping ‘attractiveness’ and social-economic performance.

The ‘attractiveness’ index aims to compare how attractive cities are as a place to live for the Dutch population. It looks at factors such as the jobs within range of the city, the share of owned and pre-war homes, distance to nature, and the culinary and cultural offer. The social-economic index, as the name says, looks at elements like employment, the population share on welfare and with low education levels, and the poverty rate.

Both rankings offer a radically different overview than the happiness ranking: ‘Happy’ Ede finds itself back at the 15th place as for its social-economic performance. ‘Unhappy’ Rotterdam is found a more attractive place to live than Ede (respectively 17th and 22nd on the attractiveness index).

Spotting strengths and weaknesses

The takeaway? Indices help to spot cities’ strengths and weaknesses, especially when you dig in the underlying data via the OECD-type dashboard approach the Atlas offers. But different measurements give different results. While it is fun to publish such rankings and see how our cities perform, one cannot a lot of value to small differences or annual movements in the Netherlands. And the key message remains that life in the Netherlands is good. We can be among 82% of happy fellow citizens, or among 89% in Ede. In this sense, the Dutch do live in a ‘madly cool country’, as Prime Minister Rutte said.

The World after GDP

Guano mining at the Chincha island off the Peruvian coast. Source: Wikipedia.

Guano mining at the Chincha island off the Peruvian coast. Source: Wikipedia.

Guano – basically bird dung with an exceptionally high quality as fertiliser – was a highly demanded product. Mainly found on Pacific islands off the coast of Peru it was a popular agricultural fertiliser since the 1840s. From the 1850s, demand sky-rocketed, and competition for guano deposits was fierce. It was guano that was at the basis of the United States imperialist tendencies. The Guano Island act of 1856 allowed US citizens to take control of unclaimed islands.

Why is this relevant, and what does it have to do with GDP?

Guano soon made the people mining it rich. But the environment suffered: it took few decades to exhaust all reservers and leave the islands containing deposits bare. Favouring short-term economic gain over long-term environmental sustainability destroyed the islands.

Guano is just one example, but fits a long human tradition of discovering, using, and then exhausting precious resources, without batting an eye about the environmental consequences – very often driven by the desire to achieve economic growth and increase GDP. But compared to the 1850s, we have a lot better understanding of how these patterns go, and a larger awareness that alternative strategies are possible.

The World Before and During GDP

The World After GDP by Lorenzo Fioramonti. Editor: Polity books

The World After GDP by Lorenzo Fioramonti. Editor: Polity books

The World After GDP, a new book by Lorenzo Fioramonti, offers some of thoughts to escape this trap. It starts by the notion that today, with the exceptions of few isolated and traditional populations, human beings above all are consumers. Private consumption is what is at the basis of GDP and keeps economies going.

GDP however has a bit different origin: it started as a tool to help the English king and French sovereigns in the 17th and 18th century determine how much tax their populations could sustain. The modern institution of GDP developed as of the 1930s, when economic Simon Kuznets helped the US administration understand the national income. Over time, GDP evolved from a metric to see the size of the economy to a goal per se.

Revise GDP, but don’t dethrone in favour of another flawed indicator

The beyond GDP argument that Fioramonti also makes has already been widely discussed on this blog. Fioramonti discusses, and welcomes, the many contenders of GDP. He dedicates some attention to the Human Development Index, the OECD’s Better Life Index, Gross National Happiness, the Social Progress Index, and more. He also notes that the criticism has resulted to some top-down changes to GDP, such as statistical revisions to add up the black market to national economy. The change to consider investment in research as a benefit rather than a cost is another example.

The Nordic leaders (Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Iceland) poking fun at US President Trump and Saudi king Salman

The Nordic leaders (Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Iceland) poking fun at US President Trump and Saudi king Salman. What if they would lead the G7?

Ultimately, Fioramonti very sensibly states that all those alternative indicators, like GDP itself, only display one approach to wellbeing. Therefore he speaks out against replacing GDP by another, again inherently subjective and likely flawed, indicator. At the same time, these sections are full of careful reflection on the beyond GDP revolution, and contain interesting ideas. For instance, his mapping of alternative G7 is provided an interesting narrative. The strongest 7 countries of sustainable development does not contain any of the largest economies, but brings Costa Rica, Colombia, Panama, Ireland, South Korea, Chile and New Zealand together. The G7 of happiest countries includes Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Canada and the Netherlands. A G7 lead by these countries would be, well, a lot of different.

A bottom-down revolution?

Apart from the top-down changes, Fioramonti also sees a bottom-up pressure on GDP. This is where his book stretches beyond the usual beyond GDP literature. While he has a point that there is an increasing community of ‘de-growth’, authentic consumption, local produce and peer-to-peer services, the question is how much we really should read into this. Does someone who drinks a regional craft beer really has his lower contribution to GDP in mind when he sips away, or does he simply value the idea of getting something from close by?

And, isn’t there a lot in the ‘sharing economy’ that has little to do with sharing? AirBnB and Uber, referred to at multiple occasions by Fioramonti, do not only have positive effects. For instance, in reducing the cost of a car ride in New York, Uber drives people out of the metro and into congested traffic. AirBnB makes it easier for people to travel, but creates it own ‘buy to rent on AirBnB’ market, pushing residents out of inner cities and seeing them replaced by one-time consumers. Modern technologies thus simply are used to generate returns in a more modern way. While the book is well thought through and a worthy read, it may stretch the argument a bit to call this a post-GDP world.

Happiness & the City

How can growing cities ensure the well-being of their citizens isn’t sacrificed in their growth? That was one of the questions I had in mind when delivering a guest lecture on happiness to a group of students from Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands. The students, enrolled in a programme on city development, were specialising in ‘Urban Development, Wealth and Well-Being’. Studies of happiness seem to have gotten a lot more common in the few years I’ve been out of university!

My presentation was centred on the argument that the well-being and happiness of citizens should be a leading objective in urban planning and city development. Politicians and policy-makers should use existing regional indicators, such as the OECD Better Life Index or the Social Progress Index (SPI), to monitor their performance. Comparing scores with benchmarks of their peer group can help spot weaknesses.

For instance, the Brussels region has a high GDP, but is doing worse on many other progress indicators, as the slides in the deck below show. The South Holland region of Rotterdam and The Hague ranks highly in the SPI, but shows weaknesses in education, environmental quality, and some health and safety indicators.

Students in the group seems to see the arguments, but also had critical questions: can you objectively measure what happiness or well-being is? Can you decide for someone else how much education or the environment counts for their happiness? And can we trust politicians using well-being data fairly? Or would they simply use it as a narrative to get support, without doing the actual work?

I ended the workshop with several case studies, asking the students how they would advise mayors to resolve policy issues. They had some creative solutions: for instance, one of the case studies described a dynamic city that attracts so many people that house prices saw massive increases. One, admittedly complicated, suggestion was to cap rent prices so normal people could afford to live there. This case study was meant to be similar to London. Another creative idea by the group was to build a satellite city at a reasonable distance. In this way, people could enjoy well-being in their place of residence, while also enjoying the dynamic life that London has to offer. One thing became clear: the next generation of urban planners will be thinking about happiness in their cities.

Celebrating the International Day of Happiness

One of the comments Twitter had a lot yesterday: ‘who decided that the International Day of Happiness would be on Monday’?

While Monday isn’t the least happy day of the week (it’s Wednesday), it may be a surprise that the first day of the new working week is the International Day of Happiness. But that was just the case this year: the day simply falls on 20 March, every year, forever.

It seems that interest in the day has picked up compared to when I wrote about it in 2014 and 2015. Via Twitter, I was flooded with articles and infographics about ways to be happy and happiness at work. That’s a great development, I’d say!

The World Happiness Report 2017

The publication of the World Happiness Report has become another regular fixture on the calendar of happiness enthusiasts (see my take in 2015 here). This year, its release coincided with the International Day of Happiness.

Looking at the results, there were a couple of surprises:

  • Norway narrowly overtook Denmark (1st in 2016 and also in 2014) as the happiest country in the data from 2014-2016. A very important disclaimer: the differences between these two and Iceland (3rd) Switzerland (4th, ranked 1st in 2015) are statistically insignificant. In brief, we don’t really know if Norwegians are really happier than the Swiss.
  • It remains mind-blowing how important equal societies, high trust (measured via perceptions of corruptions), and small populations are. Like last year, the rest of the top-10 is completed by Finland, Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Sweden.
  • The section on the United States recognises its decline. This is not a failure in attempts to Make America Great Again – though polarisation is probably part of the problem. Declining social support and a reduced trust are the factors associated with this. Jeffrey Sachs observes that the US ranked 3rd in the OECD in 2007, compared to 19th in 2016. Given the fact that GDP is still growing but happiness is in decline, it is imperative that the US works on its social crisis.
  • Also in China, the data show surprising results. China’s GDP per capita has seen a five-fold increase in 25 years. If money were to buy happiness, the levels of happiness and well-being should increase, especially for the millions of people who escaped poverty and came to form China’s new middle class. Instead, multiple studies reveal that happiness fell a bit in the 2000-2005 period, before increasing again in 2010-2014. In the earlier period, unemployment and a weaker social safety net reduced happiness, and the recovery of happiness levels took a long time. China now ranks 79th, below South Korea and the Philippines, but ahead of Indonesia and Vietnam. It also outranks Greece, where happiness suffered during the long-standing economic crisis, and the cradle of Gross National Happiness (GNH), Bhutan.

 

Mapping happiness

With the exception of pockets of red (unhappy) and orange (less happy) in Africa and part of the Middle East and Asia, overall, the world looks quite green and happy. There is a lot green to see on this map, from North America to Latin America, in Europe, in most of Asia, and in Oceania. Overall, the world is quite a happy place – and mind you, it’s the only planet where the International Day of Happiness is celebrated!

 

Schermafbeelding 2017-03-21 om 09.30.02

Who do I vote for happiness?

Tomorrow my home country, the Netherlands, goes to the polls. The Dutch political system has a low barrier to enter the parliament. Especially this year, this leads to a proliferation of parties: there are 28 parties on the ballot, of which around 11 to 15 stand a stance to win seats according to recent polls.

The broad offer of political ideas also resulted in a large amount of online voting tools. Nowadays, about fifty sites offer tools to compare your views with party manifestoes. Apart from two big and generic ones, others help you to determine which party to vote if you are an entrepreneur, a young voter, if you want to see swift work on climate change, and even if you smoke cannabis (this remains the Netherlands…!).

 

A voting tool for happiness

But there is no tool on happiness. If I want to support a politician that promotes policies improving happiness and well-being, who should I vote? Does any politician ‘run on happiness’?

Happiness is a very tricky issue for politicians. Few politicians would directly promise to make their voters happy, and for good reasons. But if you dig a bit into some of the electoral manifestoes, a couple of ideas linked to wellbeing and the beyond GDP agenda do appear.

 

Four out of the seven large parties have some notion of happiness

Let’s run through the seven parties performing best in the polls; known as VVD, PVV, CDA, D66, GroenLinks, SP and PvdA in their Dutch acronyms.

Three of the main parties do not dedicate a single word to these ideas. For the one-page manifesto of the Freedom Party (PVV, Geert Wilders), this is not a surprise. It’s main aim is to ban things that does not make its leader happy: islamic, asylum seekers, the koran, and public expenditure on culture, wind mills, public broadcasters, etc.

For the Christian Democrats (CDA) and especially Labour (PvdA), I am a bit surprised not see a reference. Both have paragraphs on sustainable economic development, and the link to welfare and wellbeing could be easily made there.

The idea of basic income – arguably also a revision to the thinking about wellbeing – appears in some manifestoes. Some smaller parties wholeheartedly support it (including a dedicated basic income party), while Labour, Greens and Social Liberals (D66) favour experiments with this tool.

 

Liberals: we are happy already, nothing to do here

The Liberals (VVD) programme follows Prime Minister Rutte’s relentless optimism: if the Netherlands wouldn’t exist, we would invent it. We’re one of the happiest countries of the world. Almost nowhere else life is as good as here (the Netherlands second?). But the measures it then proposes do not concern happiness or wellbeing – the programme simply focuses on prosperity. Is our happiness then just a coincidence? If our basis is so strong, isn’t there any way to strengthen wellbeing even further?

 

Socialists: equality makes everybody happy

The Socialists (SP) start from the correct notion that people are happier in a country with smaller differences between people, and equality is a key objective of their policies. Elsewhere, the programme notes that there is more than GDP, and wellbeing and sustainability should be considered to measure prosperity. Surprisingly, this point does not lead to a plea for alternative indicators. Instead, the relevant paragraph continues to speak out against European budget rules…

 

Greens: GDP is not holy

The Greens include a section on a pleasant life, with mostly has to do with nature and spatial planning. Quality of life in our neighbourhoods should be improved, and with an allusion to Robert F. Kennedy, the programme states that “the value of the beauty of the landscape, nature and animal welfare cannot be expressed in money”.

Elsewhere, the manifesto states that ‘GDP is not holy’, and that “wellbeing is a lot broader: green growth with sustainable boundaries, based on knowledge and innovation; inclusive growth, that creates good jobs and fair incomes. That is what counts.” A couple of nice quotations, surely, and the manifesto is full of utopian ideas to get to such a society. Indeed, according to the Central Planning Agency that reviewed the impact of most parties’ programmes, the Greens gets us very far in reducing income differences. Revision in the taxation system should finance this: the Greens are the most radical in greening the taxation system via the ‘the polluter pays’ principle.

 

Social Liberals: measure wellbeing

The Social Liberals (D66) denounce both the dogma of a government that steps too far back and the dogma of the state as a ‘happiness machine’. The programme notes that employment and social expression contribute to people’s happiness. The party also has the most detailed view on measuring wellbeing. In a dedicated paragraph, the party states that we should not only measure GDP, but also evaluate our ecological footprint, welfare, and wellbeing. These elements should be evaluated to determine our success. And based on an amendment proposed by your happiness blogger, the programme also links this to the efforts ongoing on the Netherlands to develop an alternative indicator in the form of a ‘Broad Wellbeing Monitor’.

 

NL happy

Sabbatical

Hello! Welcome to For A State of Happiness. I hope you’ll enjoy the blog.

From 2013 to 2016, I’ve written weekly blog posts on topics around happiness. I’ve started a sabbatical now, and my blog posts are on hold. I explain the reason for my break from blogging in this post. In short: TL;DR boils down to the notion that the world may not be ready for the ‘beyond GDP’ agenda yet, and I’ll give myself some breathing space before I move on.

For the moment, I’m spending time on reading happy books and devising new plans to make the world a happier place.

That doesn’t mean that there is nothing to do here, though. In the last years, I’ve written a lot about happiness from three angles: personal happiness, happiness at work, and happiness at the level of the state and our society. If you browse the categories and tags on the right, or check the indices (season 2013-14, 2014-15, 2015-16), you’ll be able to find a lot of interesting pieces. My highlights? Learning all on Gross National Happiness in Bhutan and speaking at the Wellbeing Forum in Mexico.

I am still available for doing talks, presentations and workshops on happiness (see some previous ones here, here and here), so do contact me if you are interested. Or if you like my work and want to get a coffee, feel free to get in touch via jasper [@] forastateofhappiness [dot] com!

Enjoy your exploration and the pursuit of happiness!

Index: For A State of Happiness, season 2015-2016

For A State of Happiness is on off-season now, but just like with TV series, you can always watch back your favourite episodes.

See below the index of the posts of season 3, 2015-2016.

September

October

November

December

January

February

March

April

May

June

July

A world beyond GDP: are we ready yet?

On the road to discover how happiness works, I learned a lot about happiness in my own personal life – and in your personal lives, too. I’ve also gained a lot of insight in happiness at work. But the main focus of my research effort has been around another question: is there something our governments can do to make us happy?

Allow me to dwell on this question today, before I start my ‘sabbatical’ as a blogger.

I am sure that governments can make us happier, and that they should aim to do so. There are many governments that are taking happiness-based data into account when setting policies. Gross National Happiness (GNH) in Bhutan is more of philosophical guide than a hands-on policy tool, but it shapes the narrative of the government’s action. Regions in the EU and elsewhere learn from the OECD Better Life Index and Regional Well-Being Index and from Social Progress Index (SPI). And on the local level, there is an uncountable number of projects where municipalities and social society players take happiness as inspiration in social, environmental and other projects.

 

GDP, an increasingly poor measure of prosperity

On one of the bigger and more abstract questions I have countered on the road is whether our data helps us to work on happiness. I’ve time and again argued that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has plenty of limitations. Instead, I assessed the virtue of alternative indicators mentioned above. And I have been far from alone in this endeavour. Back in 1968, Robert F. Kennedy already decried that GDP measures everything, except that which makes life worthwhile. In the last ten years, the debate on ‘beyond GDP’ has been particularly fierce. A cover article of the Economist some months ago summarised these limitations very well, and labelled GDP “an increasingly poor measure of prosperity”.

Can we do without GDP? Does the acceptance of the constraints of GDP mean that a real competitor has risen to the stage? Did we get anywhere in those ten years?

After three years of researching, I fear that my answers: no, we cannot yet do without . No, there is no real competitor. And no, maybe we haven’t made as much progress as we like to think. In the remainder of this post, I explain why.

Kennedy GDP

 

Can we do without GDP?

Ever since its creation in the 1930s, GDP provides important information about national accounts and the size of the economy. It simply measures all production that has been created in a certain territory in a year. These data are important to inform decisions on investment, government spending, and taxation. But all too often, GDP becomes a proxy for progress or prosperity. As a tool, it only measures part of productive economy: GDP falls when a man marries his maid. Indeed, if they don’t increase the economy, GDP discounts social and environmentally desirable activities, such as household work.

Furthermore, GDP is an artificial number. Figures are routinely revised, often upwards and by large margins. After a new method is used in Ireland, GDP growth is not an already significant 7.6% over 2015, but a whopping 26% as a result of some accounting tricks. Imagine the consequences: in terms GDP per capita, Irish are suddenly a lot richer, and the budget deficit shrinks by the stroke of a pen!

Despite all these limitations, GDP is probably a bit like democracy. In Churchill’s words, democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. We still need GDP as a tool to measure economic activity, to make sense of poverty, and to determine how much tax we need to pay to run our common society. It might still be the best we can do?

 

Is there any competition?

Or can we? In this blog, I’ve covered many alternative indicators, from GNH to the OECD Better Life Index to the SPI, but also the UN’s Humanitarian Development Index and even the Happy Planet Index. In my view, these are good as part of driving the narrative for a broader sense of well-being and progress. Tools like the OECD Better Life Index, GNH and the SPI can be helpful in spotting where governments need to focus resources to increase quality of life.

But they aren’t appropriate for all economic purposes. All indicators have a stronger element of arbitrary and political choices. As such, they’re too political to be used in a more economic context. Countries simply would refuse to determine financial contributions to the United Nations based on performance in the HDI, or EU regional funds based on a regional SPI score. GDP too often is seen as the more ‘objective’ metric, and even though it is not objective or stable, it is doing better than alternatives. Intriguingly, GDP is also strongly correlated with performance like HDI and SPI, even around 80% for the latter index. Although the SPI is making advances in feeding into policy, altogether none of the indices is truly challenging the position of GDP as things stand in 2016. And I don’t think it will be very different in 2018, 2020, or 2025 for that matter.

 

Did we make so much progress?

Then, how much progress did we make in several decades of an academic debate, and overall ten years of statistical revolution? A lot has happened. Our insights in quality of life and happiness is a deeper than at any moment in history. OECD statistical offices are now routinely gathering data on subjective wellbeing, and there is a vibrant research agenda in positive psychology and related fields. Academics and practicioners, myself included, happily travel to Bhutan to learn about GNH.

But what was generated out of this debate? Are we paying more attention to quality of life after the financial crisis? A single indicator truly competing with GDP has not been born. UN and EU authorities, as well as national governments and parliaments, have underlined the importance of alternative ways of measuring progress. But the reign of GDP has never been in danger. My feeling is that GDP is simply too important, and the alternatives too complex. I fear that we’re not ready for this revolution yet.

 

Time for a sabbatical

Three years on the road, my doubts on the alternatives to GDP are back. I see the beyond GDP agenda as a powerful discussion, but one that has not generated a strong enough alternative to truly challenge GDP.

On a personal level, this means that a reflection on my work is needed. Do I need to focus on something else? Do I need to work harder, or differently, for a state of happiness? Did I fail myself?

For the moment, I’ll take a break from this blog. I’ll reflect on other steps. I deserve to take some time off for a sabbatical to read more and generate other ideas. But I am sure I’ll be back with a new programme.

Because a life, enjoyably wasted in the pursuit of happiness, is a life worth wasting. Farewell!

The Social Progress Index: is your region better than its peers?

One of the common themes in my explorations on this blog has been in ‘alternative indicators’, or tools that are better equipped to measure quality of life than Gross Domestic Product (GDP). One of the most prominent ‘beyond GDP’ tools is the Social Progress Index, which I labelled “a better way to measure a good society”. And the SPI has seen a lot of development since my post of last year.

Let me start with a recap: the Social Progress Index (SPI) is developed as a broader notion of progress than GDP. It consists of 53 indicators, under the headings ‘basic human needs’ (shelter, access to clean water), ‘foundations of well-being (health, internet access) and ‘opportunity’ (human rights, social tolerance). Typically, countries tend to score higher on  basic human needs, as these often are met in high and middle income countries, even if they don’t meet the same standards on the social issues. Roughly speaking, performance for opportunity is lower, even in the richest countries. The exercise has been conducted for a couple of years now. In the 2016 update released this June, the list is topped by Finland, Canada and Denmark.

Better than your peers?

The aim of the index is similar to other beyond GDP tools I discussed like the OECD’s Better Live Index. Namely, to identify the areas of ‘progress’ or well-being in which a country is doing well, and those where it is underperforming peers. The concept of peer group is an important facet: the strengths and weaknesses are listed in comparison to a 15-country group of peers with similar levels of GDP.

This type of screening tool, in theory, could be used to help countries identify in which policy areas they could invest. The thought is that by learning from over-performing peers’ best practices, countries can use their limited resources in the most efficient way, namely by generating the highest additional well-being. The SPI has expanded a lot in the last year, starting projects with the US State of Minnesota, Reykjavik, Iceland, in the capital Bogota, other cities in Colombia and elsewhere in Latin America.

This is how the world is doing in social progress in 2016 (darker shades means higher SPI score). Source: SPI

This is how the world is doing in social progress in 2016 (darker shades means higher SPI score; grey means no data). Source: SPI

Digging down to regional level

In practice, indeed, the differences within countries are more important than between countries. More granular data at the regional and local indeed provides a lot more hands-on information to policy makers on where, and how exactly, they can do better. And the Brussels capital region may be better compared to another large city, like Hamburg, then to the province of Belgian Limburg, which in turn could learn more from a region of similar GDP as East Anglia.

That’s why both the OECD and the SPI have been complemented with data on regional level. In 2016, the SPI launched a pilot overview of the 272 regions in the EU. The Commission has released the data of the exercise in February, and an updated version is due to come out in October. And where OECD uses only 11 indicators, the European regional data provide 50 out of the original 53 of the SPI. They also built in the peer group comparison in the methodology.

Once we start comparing regions with each other in Europe, very quickly the next question comes: will the unprivileged regions get more money to bridge gap?Conceptually, one could argue that using the SPI data to address specific low performance areas is a good way to aiming investment at the area where progress can be made. But money is sensitive, and in presenting the data, the Commission has been crystal clear that it doesn’t want to revise this funding policy. Nonetheless, the granular data can provide what is necessary: a better way to measure a good, regional, society.

How is Brussels doing? A bit of under-performance compared to Hamburg, Prague, Vienna, and similar regions. Source: European Commission/Social Progress Imperative

How is Brussels doing? A bit of under-performance compared to Hamburg, Prague, Vienna, and similar regions. Source: European Commission/Social Progress Imperative

Post Navigation