For generations, government officials have measured the state of the state and nation via one statistic: Gross Domestic Product, formerly known as the Gross National Product.
It stood to reason that the greater economic production in our society, the better off everyone would be; the rising tide would lift all boats. And to a point, that proved true. The introduction of indoor plumbing greatly increased quality of life for Americans. As did antibiotics, the computer, and craft beer (okay, maybe that last on did more for me than society at large, but you get the point.)
However, somewhere along the line we reached a place where new innovations and GDP increases failed to bring real increases in quality of life. The iPad 2 did not magically increase quality of life over the iPad 1.
Not only that, but GDP is not a measure of overall well-being. As Dr. Martin Seligman discusses in his book, Flourish, GDP goes up anytime there is a divorce. Or a car crash. Antidepressant use rises, so does GDP. And so on.
Surely, there must be a better way in 2011 to measure the quality of life in our society, incorporating not only economics, but also long-term sustainability and overall well-being. And the argument for a new statistic is growing in stature, with academics like Dr. Seligman, economist Joseph Stiglitz and Umair Haque of the Havas Media Lab all promoting different concepts around the idea of measuring well-being.
Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate, is currently working with President Sarkozy of France on creating just such a measure. A 2009 commission created by Sarkozy and led by Stiglitz published their initial report in the fall of 2009, which encouraged France to move “towards better measures of economic performance in a complex economy,” including measurements for economy, quality of life and sustainability.
Haque, in his book The New Capitalist Manifesto, encourages society to move from the consumption-based capitalism of the past and highlights the hidden social and environmental costs that aren’t included in a measurement like GDP.
And Seligman, the founder of ‘positive psychology’ and the former president of the American Psychological Association, has developed stringent scientific models for the measurement of the overall well-being of a population through his work in education and in improving the resilience of soldiers in the US Military.
It’s a lot to expect that the US Government would adopt a well-being index, since they can’t seem to do much of anything inside the Beltway in today’s polarized environment. It’s worth noting, however, the efforts in both France as well as Great Britain, where David Cameron’s government is proceeding toward such an index.
So although a well-being index isn’t on the horizon for the federal government, surely it can be done in Delaware. The First State has experienced the massive movement of major social policy over recent months, including civil unions, drug laws, minor pension reform. Surely our decision-makers could, together with the University of Delaware and major nearby academics like Dr. Seligman, devise the proper metrics and a way to measure the state on a regular basis.
If a metric could be devised and regularly measured, it could help guide policymakers in the future to make the best decisions for the long-term welfare of the state. For instance, with today’s ‘economy-only’ measurements, it’s a no-brainer to give tax dollars to re-open the Delaware City refinery: more jobs, more taxes, higher GDP.
A different conclusion may be reached, however, by using a metric that includes the negative environmental and health effects that will arise from operation of the plant, as well as the effects on well-being. The unemployed who now have stable jobs will see an increase in well-being, but those who live nearby, whose health is now at risk, will see a decrease. Perhaps the Governor would come to the same conclusion and support the plant’s reopening. But the conversation would certainly be altered.
The great management guru Peter Drucker famously said, “what gets measured gets managed.” If we are indeed capable of measuring well-being in a legitimate, controlled and scientific manner, we are robbing our policymakers of an immensely valuable resource if we fail to do so.