Governments should cast their eye away from the GDP as a measure of absolute success, and begin to focus on rights and wellbeing
Read the business pages or the economics pages on newspapers, websites, on mainstream blogs, or on the news, and it’s clear that there’s one thing governments should be straining for, planning for, focused on – “growth” – or to be more specific, increased gross domestic product (GDP). Here’s just one recent, typical, example.
GDP includes “the market value of all officially recognised final goods and services”. After the Second World War, it was adopted as the chief measure of national progress, even though its inventor had warned against too wide a use.
It’s worth thinking for a second about what it doesn’t include. It doesn’t include housework, or care for children and the elderly (something that in part inspired the Wages for Housework campaign). It doesn’t include any measure of the state of the national infrastructure – bridges, roads, railways— all of which are being degraded by more “goods and services.” It doesn’t include what might be called the “social infrastructure, such as social cohesion, trust and relationships. And it doesn’t include any measure of the natural wealth of a nation – indeed many things that increase GDP such as chopping down a forest for timber does great damage to the environment, and in other terms our wealth.
Any thinking economist will agree that GDP is a terrible measure to be using as the guide for policymaking, yet somehow we have failed to move beyond it – have failed to adjust our policymaking towards a better measure or better measures.
That’s not for want of effort by academics and think-tanks.
Here in Britain the New Economics Foundation has produced the Happy Planet Index (referred to recently on this site). More narrowly, the UN has adopted a new international standard to give natural capital equal status to GDP. And there’s been a lot of focus on the UN’s “gross national happiness index” – although the gloss often put on that is tainted by its treatment of its ethnic Nepalese minority.
“Happiness” however is a very “woolly” word – it suggests an advertising agency, air-brushed, unreal world where everyone is always smiling, giggling, saying “have a good day” in a fake glossy way– and we know that individual human happiness is an immensely complex thing certainly not closely amenable to the levers of government policy. The idea of government dating agencies might appeal to Singapore, but not to me, or I suspect most of the world.
I prefer — when thinking about what political policies should aim for — to think about rights and wellbeing. Rights are the basics, what we should be guaranteeing to everyone – food, water, shelter will do as the start, together with the rights to freedom of speech and expression, of life choices.
Wellbeing is broader, and less concrete, but something that can be measured, and measured not just for our individual conditions, but also our natural and social environment. In our social environment, are we providing good education available to all, a gainful occupation, useful, rewarding ways to spend our time, to all? And in the natural environment, are we keeping our air, water and land clean, our forests, farmlands and grasslands healthy, protecting biodiversity, leaving a planet fit for future generations?
So how are we doing if we start to think about rights and wellbeing? Very badly. On one of the most basic provisions of all, in Britain, the world’s sixth-richest country, is food, yet half a million people are today, reliant on food-banks, on charity, that in turn is reliant on the goodwill of donations to ensure that they can meet the need. Water – well we do have a rule that says your water can’t be cut off for non-payment of bills, but we have a system in which private owners have built up massive debts against the system, imposing huge risks and potential costs. Shelter? Well our housing shortage and imbalance sees many homes in the North empty while overcrowding is rife elsewhere.
Wellbeing? Education available to all – but we have some of the most class-linked education results in the developed world (even your grandparents’ class has a big impact on how far you’ll go), and we have students starting at university now who’re going to have tens of thousands of pounds of debt hanging over them for decades. On employment, we have 2.5 million people officially unemployed, one in ten working fewer hours than they’d like to be working, and one in five workers on less than a living wage.
On the state of our environment, the news is equally bleak. The recent State of Nature report found that 61 per cent of British species have declined in the past 50 years, 3 per cent declining strongly. We’re failing to meet our basic legal duties on air quality, our towns and cities are among the worst water polluters in Europe, our soils are steadily degrading. And of course on a global scale there’s climate change.
We need a new kind of politics, a new kind of economics, a new way of shaping our society to meet the needs of all within the limits of our one planet. (I set out more about it here.) That’s what the Green Party believes, and is working for. Many others have the same vision – campaigning groups from UKUncut and Occupy to Friends of the Earth, and Child Poverty Action to the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England.
But decisions about our political and economic future are made by elected people – by local councillors, Assembly members, members of parliament and members of the European parliament. We need to ensure we elect more of them who understand the need for transformation in our economic and social directions, away from the stale, failed GDP model, away from privatisation and outsourcing, bowing to the desires of multinational companies and the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us. The old economics has failed, so has the old politics.
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