Measuring Progress

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I’m in Paris for a meeting of a new Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress. It’s a city that invites reflections on the past that can make the future shimmer.

Walking down the Rue des Francs Bourgeois in the Marais I recall an essay contest sponsored by a group of learned French scholars in 1759. They asked, “Has intellectual and economic progress contributed to the moral improvement of humanity?” The winner, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (smiling enigmatically on the left), elaborated famously on his basic answer: non!

Today, his answer seems less interesting than their question. Moral improvement will probably not be on the meeting agenda. Economists are much more nervous about measuring economic progress. Richard Easterlin’s paper observing that reported happiness in the U.S. has not increased along with Gross Domestic Product is finally getting the attention it deserves. A spate of books such as Richard Layard’s Happiness document yawning gaps between objective and subjective well-being. A recent paper by economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers grabbed headlines simply because its international comparisons held out the slim hope that money might increase happiness a bit, after all.

Neoclassical economists face an especially serious challenge to their assumption that more is always better. But virtually all economists praise Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as though it were another three letter abstraction that begins with G. I sometimes feel agnostic about possibilities for either economic or spiritual progress. But like Pascal, I prefer to wager on the positive.

I’m no economic atheist, but my religion needs reform. Preparing for the meeting, I realize, to my surprise, that the principles I want to nail on the cathedral door are moral ones: 1) We should care about future generations. This implies consideration of natural assets (such as forests and fisheries) and the sustainability of ecological services. 2) We should care about others who are alive today. This implies consideration of poverty and inequality on a global scale. 3) We should care about own capabilities: our health, our education, our self-awareness, more than our own consumption (which appears not to make us all that happy, anyway).

Any new measures of economic progress that redirect our attention away from GDP toward these broader concerns will be helpful. The devils, of course, are everywhere, including in the details.