The Happiness of David Cameron – Sunday column, December 5, 2010
And now for some good news. David Cameron – not my brother, the guy in No. 10 Downing Street – has been musing aloud that maybe the Gross Domestic Product, a narrow financial measure developed during the economic maelstrom of the 1930s, doesn’t adequately describe human life in the globalized 21st century.
In these musings, Cameron echoes French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who in 2008 commissioned a panel of eminent economists to seek a better measurement than GDP. He also echoes Simon Kuznets, who invented the GDP but cautioned against using it the way we use it today. “The welfare of a nation,” Kuznets said in 1934, can “scarcely be inferred from a measure of national income.”
With both Sarkozy and Cameron looking beyond the GDP, the idea of a better measurement of well-being really has entered the mainstream. And that’s very good news.
As the Constant Reader knows, I think this issue of measurement and accounting is a huge impediment to human well-being. The GDP, a primitive measurement that counts all monetary transactions as positive – crime, war, tsunamis, whatever – distorts our whole notion of progress. Indeed, money is only one factor in human happiness and well-being, and it’s not the most important one.
For example, two Ontario think-tanks, The Centre for the Study of Living Standards and the Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity, recently analyzed data for 70,000 Canadians from Statistics Canada’s Community Health Survey. They found that mental and physical health, stress levels, unemployment and community connections were all more important than income in determining “life satisfaction.” And although more than 90% of Canadians described themselves as happy or very happy with their lives, the happiest were Prince Edward Islanders, and the least happy were Ontarians – which is the precise opposite of what GDP results would imply.
In the US, according to Albertan economist Mark Anielski in The Economics of Happiness, the creators of the US Genuine Progress Index report a steady erosion of American natural, human and social capital even as GDP increases. During the 1990s, GDP rose by 1.4% annually, but the GPI fell by 2.7%. While the rich grew ever richer, the ordinary American family confronted increasing crime, homelessness, unemployment, family breakdown, pollution and so forth. Measured by the things that matter, the US is growing steadily poorer.
The US GPI, Cameron’s musings, Sarkozy’s initiative, the Canadian Index of Well-Being, GPI Atlantic’s work here in Nova Scotia – all these are part of a world-wide trend known as “the indicators movement,” the search for more useful empirical indicators of social health and wellness. The most impressive effort is just emerging in the US, where an obscure provision in the Obama health-care act requires Congress to stimulate the creation of a set of “key national indicators” known as “The State of the USA.” Rigorously supervised by the National Academy of Sciences, the system will be open, online and free. It will eventually provide about 300 indicators of trends in areas like crime, energy, infrastructure, housing, health, education, environment and the economy.
But here’s the thing – and it’s typical of what I love about the United States. From 2007 until now, State of the USA has been supported by a coalition of individual philanthropists and national foundations with names like Carnegie, Rockefeller and Bill and Melinda Gates. Those supporters got the project up and running, and they intend to continue supporting it even after the government gets involved, to ensure that it remains accountable to the whole society and not just to government.
That’s a noble model that reflects the power of American philanthropy. It is weakly echoed in the Canadian Index of Well-Being, which has been well supported by the Atkinson Foundation but has gained little traction with other donors or with government. Indeed, Canadians tend not to do this kind of thing independent of government, which seriously compromises our national capacity to innovate.
“The slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things,” said St. Thomas Aquinas. We can know with certainty how much money changes hands in our society. That’s a lesser thing. Our advances in happiness, foresight, compassion and wisdom – those are the higher things. And, difficult though they are to measure, those are the things we really need to know.