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by: Rutger Hoesktra

Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the way we measure economic growth, has become the primary measure of success of societies. Countries that have a high GDP are considered important and governments that experience high economic growth are admired. As a result, there is a dominant narrative in society that “growth is good”.

But we have known for many decades that this narrative is flawed and that GDP is not a comprehensive measure of success. It does not measure important components of wellbeing such as health, education and social relationships. As far back as 1968, Robert Kennedy already proclaimed that GDP “measures everything….. except that which makes life worthwhile”.

Crucially, GDP also does not account for the growth in environmental degradation or growth in inequalities that are caused by growth in GDP.

To remedy this gap, many hundreds of alternatives for measuring economic success have been suggested: the Human Development Index, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Genuine Progress Indicator, Ecological Footprint, Happy Planet Index, Adjusted Net Savings, Comprehensive Wealth, and the Inclusive Wealth Index. Many brilliant scientists, thought leaders and important institutes have contributed to this impressive body of research, which is foundational to the creation of a Wellbeing Economy, an economy that delivers social justice on a healthy planet.

Yet, despite 50 years of understanding the drawbacks of  GDP and the introduction of hundreds of alternative ‘Beyond-GDP’ measures of economic success, it seems that the “growth is good” economic narrative is becoming stronger every day. But now,  more than ever before, we need our economy and society to focus on delivering wellbeing, sustainability, and equity. The election of Joe Biden, the introduction of climate targets in China and Europe, marches for racial justice and climate action are all signs of  the dire need and public demand to ‘Build Back Better’ after the COVID-19 pandemic. There has never been  a better time to replace the growth narrative. WEAll’s  new briefing paper describes a three-pronged strategy which should be adopted to do just that:

1) Harmonise. There are simply too many Beyond-GDP alternatives and new ones are being created every month. One of the most powerful features of GDP is that it is measured in the same way all over the world. The United Nations and OECD played a crucial role in developing a global economic accounting framework: the System of National Accounts, which allows for the global comparison of GDP. We need the United Nations and other international institutions to step up and help harmonise Beyond-GDP indicators to ensure there are consistent measures of success for the performance of a Wellbeing Economy.

2) Develop Policy Tools. Statistics help us to measure how things have developed in the past. But policy makers also need advice about their policy options in the future. Macro-economists have developed many tools to help inform difficult policy decisions, mainly focused on GDP growth. This community needs to create tools which show governments how to enhance wellbeing, sustainability and equity in their societies. A prime example of such a tool is New Zealand’s pioneering Wellbeing Budget that is designed expressly to prioritise the wellbeing of citizens.   

3) Change the Social Narrative. This strategy will only be successful if it manages to change societal discourse on economic success. Currently, our media plays a key role in spreading the “growth is good” economic narrative. The development of globally harmonised statistics and policy tools will help journalists and the general public to shift their belief on economic success to a narrative which values wellbeing, sustainability, and equity. If you would like to learn more about these ideas, download and share our new paper here and attend our upcoming webinar on November 20th at 9am EST/ 2pm UK. Register through the WEAll Citizens Platform here.

Download the Measuring the Wellbeing Economy Briefing Paper PDF