Tag Archives: Beyond Gdp

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.

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

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

Beyond GDP event: does happiness make good policy?

Can developing countries afford the money to develop happiness-based public policies?

Why is Saudi-Arabia a fairly happy country, despite low levels of personal freedom?

How is it possible that Sweden is one of the happiest countries of the world, but also a country with one of the highest suicide rates?

Are measures of happiness accurate? Shouldn’t weather and gastronomy be part of it, given their importance for happiness? 

This is just a snapshot of some of the great questions that I got fired on me from the audience at a conference on ‘Beyond GDP. Why Happiness Makes Goood Policy’. They provide plenty of material for future blog posts!

The event was organised by the Danish Embassy in Brussels and the Young Professionals and Foreign Policy (YPFP) in Brussels. Fortunately I wasn’t alone in answering them: I spoke alongside Marie Louise Dornoy of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen.

Happiness is all about statistics

Apart from challenging my arguments and thoughts about the topic, I felt that the questions also revealed a deep interest and understanding from the audience. Happiness is a universal topic, and everybody in the room seemed to reflect on the question what happiness means for themselves and for society they live in.

As in many events, people were curious whether happiness and well-being can really be used in public policy. I feel that progress has been made in the last ten years to strengthen the scientific base and to gathering of statistical evidence underlying well-being policies. Often this is up to academia and central statistical agencies. As I formulated it during the event, happiness is a lot about statistics.

Local governments ‘experiment’ with happiness policies

For the concrete policy initiatives, it is especially local and regional authorities that are discovering and experimenting in this area. The great thing is that field is expanding quickly and that in a couple of years, we will have a lot more knowledge than we have now.

I raised the example of the ‘Geluksbudget‘ (Happiness budget, see here in Dutch) used in some Dutch municipalities. With this budget, socially deprived people are granted a sum of money they can invest in an intervention to increase their happiness. Marie Louise mentioned various initiatives, such as ‘National Neighbours Day‘ in the Netherlands, and the ‘Mobile Mini Circus‘ in Afghanistan. The Happiness Research Institute has also started to collect examples from happiness-based policies and so far has gathered about one hundred examples.

 

Want to know more?

See some tweets below and my powerpoint presentation to get an impression of the event. 

Part of the conference was live-tweeted. For some of the coverage, see the accounts @YPFPBrussels and @DKinBelgium or the hashtag #YPFPBXL

 

Event on Beyond GDP, 4 June in Brussels

Can human happiness be a basis for policy-making?

To hear my thoughts on this topic, join the event on “Beyond GDP – Why Happiness is Good Policy” on 4 June at 19.00 in Brussels. Find the details and the link to the registration form here.

The event is organised by the Danish Embassy in Brussels and the Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). The main speaker is Marie Louise Dornoy, a researcher at the Danish Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen. The Institute is a think-tank dedicated to the study of happiness and well-being, as well as policies and interventions to increase them.

Full text of the invitation:

beyond gdp event

Picture by Camdiluv, Chile, taken from WIkipedia.

WHAT: Beyond GDP – Why Happiness is Good Policy
WHEN: Thursday, 4 June, 19.00 – 20.30
WHERE: Danish Church, Rue Washington 27, 1050 Brussels (Ixelles)
WHO:YPFP Members and friends. In the event of over-subscription, YPFP members will be given preference.

REGISTER: https://goo.gl/Gf88IH

Can human happiness be a basis for policy-making?

In the 1970s, Bhutan based its public policy on the concept of ‘Gross National Happiness’ (GNH). Instead of economic goals championed by Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the aim of GNH is to contribute to public policies that directly affect the well-being of citizens.
Since the early 2000s, global discussions on ‘beyond GDP’ policies have sought to include happiness as an alternate criteria for policy-making.

On Bhutan’s initiative, the UN adopted a resolution recognising the human aspiration to happiness. The UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network reports on world happiness levels. The 2015 World Happiness Report ranks Switzerland, Iceland and Denmark as the three happiest countries in the world. But ‘beyond GDP’ policies are also questioned. Can governments legitimately decide what happiness is? Can public policy really increase well-being? Does a focus on happiness distract governments from more important policy objectives?

Join our discussion with:
- Marie Louise Dornoy, Research & Communications, The Happiness Research Institute, Copenhagen, Denmark
- Jasper Bergink, Editor and Happiness Researcher, For a State of Happiness

Please note that you will be asked to provide ID details upon registration. Participants will need to provide photo ID to gain entry to the event.

Social progress: a better way to measure a good society

For too long, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has been the king of the indicators for public policy. Money makes the world go round. And GDP measures it. GDP emerged in the 1930s as a metric to measure the size of national accounts and inform policy makers’ decisions. Since, it has developed into a tool to benchmark countries’ performance: GDP growth is equated to progress.

GDP and beyond

Within the beyond GDP movement, many people have challenged this dominance, arguing that a good society is a lot more than economic performance. Social and environmental externalities are discounted in GDP. For instance, economists calculated that the Gulf of Mexico oil spill resulted in a higher GDP! And even GDP’s creator, economist Simon Kuznets, was aware of these limitations. When preparing the pile of statistic data for the US Congress in 1933, he noted that:

The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income.

Since, many have challenged the dominance as a benchmark in the countries’ annual performance reviews. Most competing indices aim to rebalance GDP, by providing economic performance and add other data in areas as social matters, environment and education. This is the case for indicators like the Humanitarian Development Index (HDI), the OECD’s Better Life Index and Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness.

And further beyond… all economic data!

The Social Progress Index (SPI), however, has a different approach.

The SPI differentiates itself from other challengers to GDP by its unique conceptual choice to stay away from economic data. Instead, it measures social progress via 52 concrete outcomes assessing three key indicators to measure progress: basic human needs, ‘foundations of well-being’, and opportunity (see more in this eloquent TEDx talk).

These concepts are assessed via a series of questions asking about people’s experiences in many aspects that matter for quality of life: how many people have shelter and sufficient water? Do people live in a sustainable ecosystem? How many people experience discrimination? Survey data allow to compare such outcomes based on what people feel, rather than by measuring social issues via public expenditure or laws.

 

Source: data from Social Progress Imperative, available here.

Social progress does not equate happiness

The SPI does not measure happiness or aim to do so. Still, a glance at the wealth of data produced by the SPi suggest that their ranking broadly overlaps with the data from the World Happiness Report. All the top time countries are the same, but in a different order. Switzerland, Iceland and Denmark form the top-three in happiness; for social progress it’s Norway, Sweden and Switzerland.

But there are some differences: especially Latin American countries seem to rank lower in the SPI. Countries like Costa Rica, Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela and Panama benefit from a ‘Latin American happiness bonus and make it to the top-25 in happiness, but fall short of the top-25 in social progress. To the contrary, some highly developed countries (Germany, France, Japan, South Korea) combine lower levels of happiness with higher levels of social progress.

A different data set for policy makers 

The main use of SPI as a policy tool is that it is adds knowledge on progress without building on economic data. From that perspective, it may be surprising that there nevertheless is a solid correlation of 0.78 between GDP and SPI. But SPI allows policy makers to make assessment from a different angle. The main benefit is to identify areas where a country is shortcoming comparing to peers with similar GDP levels, and to strengthen the information base about interventions that can address lower performance.

In recent years, policy makers’ interest in beyond GDP indicators has steadily risen. The SPI is also benefitting from this. The European Commission has started talks to integrate the SPI to monitor regional policy outcomes. And in the US, where social progress and happiness are lagging behind economic strength, several local and state level politicians have started to integrate SPI information in their dashboard of monitored outcomes. For instance, the city of Somerville, Massachusetts, has started analysing tailored SPI analytics on the local level. And in the state of Michigan, social progress indicators are included in a set of key performance indicators.

Data for a good society

This is exactly what alternative indicators should do. GDP has a value. Economic data provide a useful understanding about people’s lives. But if you want to find out what a good society is, and whether you are on an upward or downward trend, there is a lot more to watch. The SPI provides a great contribution to help policymakers find out on which areas they should work to make their country progress.

Beyond GDP, a long road to travel

Almost fifty year since the famous speech by Robert F. Kennedy, and almost ten years after the start of a thorough debate on ‘beyond GDP’, it’s time to meet the unfilled promise.

On some occasions before, I have written blog posts to encourage EU policy makers and politicians to step up their ambitions and integrate ‘beyond GDP’ indicators in their policies. For instance, see posts on ‘Gross European Happiness‘ or ‘An EU Happiness Manifesto‘, and an essay I wrote for the Next Generation for Europe magazine NGE Magazine 1 (Chapter three, pdf).

And I must say, the topic is on the agenda. I recently had the fortune to attend a European Commission expert conference on ‘beyond GDP’. Noting the importance of the topic, the conference was opened by two outgoing Commissioners: Laszlo Andor, for Social Affairs, and Janez Potocznik, for Environment.

Winning the battle of measurement…

How to make the giant leap from theory to practice? Enrico Giovannini, a former Italian Minister and OECD Chief Statistician, has pushed the debate on GDP forwards in the recent decade. He asked whether those supporting the idea of beyond GDP have won or lost in the debates from the last years. His conclusion was that the ‘battle of measurement’ has been won. In comparison to ten years ago, national statistic offices do a lot more effort to measure what matters.

Routine measurements of social and environmental indicators allows us to get a broader understanding of quality of life than economic growth and inflation could give us. They are more and more interested in collecting and refining social figures on employment rates, NEET rates (people Not in Education, Employment or Training – a proxy for youth employment), and inequality-adjusted GDP growth. Environmental numbers like generated waste, emission of green house gasses and water use also gain more prominence. And new indices like the OECD Better Life Index treat all indicators equally.

OECD

Screenshot of the OECD Better Life Index website

… but the battle for policy must still be fought

There are two questions around this: do we measure enough? And do we do enough to exploit this massive amount of data and adapt our policies to it? When asking whether we won the battle of policy, the answer from Giovannini is simple – no. If you want to make simple policies from these crunched numbers, you have to make trade-offs. How much air pollution is an increase in GDP of 1% worth? How much fossil fuels can you burn to lift one thousand people out of poverty? And what, objectively, is well-being anyway? These are incredibly difficult questions to answer. Economic growth is a lot easier objective. There is no easy way out.

Can economic, environmental and social betterment go hand in hand? The Commission – via its stated objective of smart, sustainable and inclusive growth – thinks so. But MEP Philippe Lamberts doesn’t agree. He believes that in a finite planet, sustainable growth is an inherent paradox. From an environmental perspective, we may need degrowth; but at the same time, that has consequences on employment. And, higher growth is also associated with more money invested in environmental protection.

How do you cut this Gordian knot?

The quest for perfection limits action

Nobody can easily answer these complex these questions. But I can offer my own conclusions:

  1. A lot of laudable work is being done by statisticians and policymakers, especially in social and environmental departments. With a lot of conviction and passion, they had managed to put the issue on the agenda. But they need to get economists more involved in these debate to get more leverage. It was telling that very few participants were trained economists.
  2. Call me a pessimist, but my feeling is that the political momentum behind the beyond GDP drive is fading. There are generic references to the agenda, but the policy efforts needs to be stepped up. In my view, policymakers need to be more courageous and bring their policies to main stream politics. That requires broad political campaigning and communication, as the new economics foundation also writes (pdf). Reports don’t change reality. Action does.
  3. Finally, maybe it is a quest for perfection that is limiting action. A perfect measurement of well-being does not exist. If you group indicators together in one figure – say well-being is ’42′ – you can make little sense of it. Similarly, a ‘dashboard’ with eleven different figure as in the OECD Better Life Index can be difficult to apply. But in this case, it appears the perfect is the enemy of good. GDP also has been refined often. It’s better to refine measures and policies of well-being on the way than to never start the journey.

Beyond GDP: a long road to travel, but one that is worthy to go.

Robert F. Kennedy: measure what makes life worthwhile

If there is one icon that inspires me in my discoveries on For A State Of Happiness, it is Robert. F. Kennedy. In a way, this is a bit ridiculous. For a large part, my image of the man is based on an extract of barely 300 words in a speech delivered almost five decades ago. There must be leaders alive in our times who have something to say about the topic.

Robert F. Kennedy (or RFK) was the seventh out of nine children in the Kennedy family. He served as Attorney General is his brother John’s administration. After the murder of JFK, RFK was one of the most prominent members of the Democrats. In 1968, he ran for President.

JFK and RFK kept a joint diary with quotes that inspired them. Many of those are aphorisms from old Greek philosophers, like Plato. French writer Albert Camus was another favourite. I really like the idea and have started my own notebook. I imagine I can look back at the quotes in some years and be re-inspired by them.

In 1968, RFK was one of the candidates in the Democratic primaries for the position of President of the United States. On 18 March, he delivered a long speech at the University of Kansas. Amongst others, the speech talks about civil rights, inequality and the Vietnam war. But he (or his speech writer) also gave an extremely sharp critique of Gross Domestic Product. It has a central place in my own notebook, and I’d like to quote a full extract:

“And this is one of the great tasks of leadership for us, as individuals and citizens this year.  But even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction – purpose and dignity – that afflicts us all.  Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.

Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.  It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them.  It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl.  It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.  It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.  It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.  And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”

That was on 18 March 1968. What has happened next? The US went through a volatile time. Martin Luther King was murdered on 4 April. RFK had the same fate on 5 June. And the elections that year were won by the Republican Richard Nixon.

This month, it is 46 years ago that RFK died. Who knows what could have brought into motion if RFK had won the Presidency…?

The politics of well-being

Some time ago, I was ‘converted’ to the creed of well-being politics, if I may use that term. To the extent they’re willing to listen, I’ve told many people why I believe governments should adopt a broader perspective than economic growth and fully integrate environmental and social development in their policies.

In this context, I’ve had the question whether I’m pursuing a personal political agenda behind this. I’ve never had a clear-cut answer to this. Firstly, I don’t see myself as a politician. It’s a tough job to have a well-founded opinion about everything. And secondly, as a person with a social-liberal disposition, I am not sure how large the role of the government can be.

My recent discussions with fellow social-liberals indicated limited political support for my ideas to attach more weight to policies that can enhance well-being and happiness. And at the two congresses I recently attended, it still seemed to be seen as a creative, somewhat strange, idea. But what is the purpose of our state, if not promoting the well-being of its citizens?

Part of the aversion is out of fears of governments deciding how we should be happy. Even if that’s a concern in totalitarian states, there is no reason to dismiss any government role in ‘well-being politics’. Naturally, the government should in no way tell us how to be happy. Every individual is responsible for their own life and the happiness and well-being that result from their choices. Still, there are areas where we need our governments.

In the current post-crisis ‘happiness wave’, there is more attention for these policies. Media increasingly pay attention to it. On Bhutan’s initiative, the UN introduced an International Day of Happiness in 2013. Venezuela has a minister of supreme happiness. And several countries are exploring new ways to integrate well-being in their policies.

 

Beyond economic growth

Bhutanese Prime Minister Jigmi Y. Thinley - a politician who believes in GNH! Source: UN

Bhutanese Prime Minister Jigmi Y. Thinley – a politician who believes in GNH! Source: UN

The main point of the well-being political agenda is that objectives other than economic growth should be granted a larger role in political decisions. An important method to do this is the Gross National Happiness (GNH) index (see also this earlier post). If you are not familiar with its methodology, GNH by its name can come across as a vague phenomenon pursued by pot-smoking, tree-hugging utopians.

But it is a lot more solid than that. The Bhutanese concept is based on 124 variables that determine an individual’s well-being or quality of life. And apart from GNH, there are many other alternative ‘beyond GDP’ indicators.

Their aim is basic and revolutionary at the same time. Beyond GDP indicators (there is at least a dozen contenders) aim to benchmark the performance of a society in a broader perspective. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has many advantages, but doesn’t reflect the costs (in economic and well-being terms) of environmental damage and social inequality.

The assumption of ‘beyond GDP’ advocates that if you measure something else – GNH instead of GDP – you’ll also act differently. A state that benchmarks its performance on GNH does not neglect the importance of monetary wealth. What it tries to do is to carefully balance the benefits of economic growth with its environmental, social and psychological impact. Politicians are increasingly aware of the promise of well-being politics. One party congress I attended adopted a position calling for the use of the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW). But there is still a long way to go before politicians truly implement these lessons. I will play my part in convincing them.