Making our Metrics Count

Kim Samuel
Mar 18, 2018 · 4 min read

Ten years ago, the global financial crisis set then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy on a personal mission. To him, the crisis was in part caused by the international community’s fixation on unreliable metrics like GDP. A “cult of figures,” as he quipped, had blinded us to the deeper malaise beneath. Sarkozy charged two Nobel laureates, Drs. Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz, with rethinking GDP, and a year later their commission concluded with an unorthodox idea: a modern metric of economic wellbeing must include dimensions like happiness and social connection.

If this sounded superficial in a time of profound economic pain, Sarkozy has only been vindicated by the decade since. On the one hand, the global economy looks healthy. Global manufacturing has picked up and companies are adding to their payrolls in record numbers. Last November, The Wall Street Journal declared, “U.S. Manufacturing Rides Rising Tide, Buoyed by Global Growth, Optimism.” And yet, the world over, people are feeling disconnected, lonely, isolated — an experience I describe, metaphorically, as sitting at the bottom of a well.

In Canada, for instance, GDP has more than rebounded since the Great Recession. But according to the Canadian Index of Wellbeing’s 2016 report, “The wellbeing of Canadians took a significant step backwards” since the recession, “and has only begun to recover.”

In the UK, five years of rising GDP and increased employment have had no correlation with reports of happiness or life satisfaction. Despite having the third largest economy in Europe, Britons report feeling far lonelier than other Europeans. The problem has grown to such a degree that Prime Minister Theresa May appointed a Minister of Loneliness earlier this year.

Social isolation is both a cause and consequence of problems that transcend borders, from climate change and addiction to the refugee crisis — all of which place a massive strain on our economies.

Yet our current metrics are ill-equipped to register the effects of social isolation — so much so that both the British Minister of Loneliness and newly appointed Minister of Happiness for the UAE have identified the one of largest hurdles in their new positions to be a lack of data.

National governments need not appoint their own Cabinet level officials before beginning to track the determinants of isolation as well. What might that look like? Academics have envisioned a variety of different methods.

The Canadian Index of Wellbeing, inspired in part by Drs. Sen and Stiglitz’s report, has identified eight indicators of “community vitality” — perceived safety walking alone, perceived crime severity, perceived discrimination, number of close friends, trust, time spent volunteering, unpaid help to others, and an overall sense of belonging to one’s community. These determinants are tracked and reflected in an index of overall wellbeing. Similar indexes are used by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Other promising new measures are emerging. The nonprofit Social Progress Imperative has created the Social Progress Index (SPI), designed to reach beyond “traditional measurements of success like income and investment.” Comprising over 50 indicators in total, the index is divided into three core categories: “Basic Human Needs, Foundations of Wellbeing, and Opportunity.”

The World Economic Forum has highlighted a number of proposals, including the work of Dr. Diane Coyle, a professor of Public Policy at the University of Cambridge who developed a six-part measurement tool inspired by Amartya Sen’s “capabilities” approach. It attempts to answer, and then measure, one of his central questions: “What do people need to allow them to lead the kind of life they want?”

Dr. Angel Hsu, a professor of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University, has leveraged the power of remote sensing and satellite imagery to detect which urban residents are most vulnerable to social isolation and poor environmental conditions, and where in their city they live. Her new project, the Urban Environmental and Social Inclusion Index, is the only metric of its kind to spatially graph social isolation.

Encouragingly, a handful of countries, including Bhutan, UAE, and Ecuador, have also developed metrics for ‘National Happiness Indexes.’ Yet by and large, governments haven’t significantly revised metrics like GDP, fearing a dent to their perceived prosperity. As journalist David Rothkopf pointed out in the New York Times, if America’s GDP calculations also included the country’s high levels of child poverty and unemployment, “the things that matter more to people” than pure economic output, the United States’ spot at the top would look much less secure. It’s as if we know that our compass is broken, yet keep relying on it to guide us.

This is a risky approach to pursue, given the stakes at hand. As Stiglitz and Sen warned in their 2009 report: “What we measure affects what we do; and if our measurements are flawed, decisions may be distorted.” In other words, if our metrics don’t value social connection, our policies won’t either, limiting our ability to meet the challenges and opportunities ahead.

On March 18, 1968, 50 years ago today, the fight to reform metrics of national health and wealth found an unlikely champion: then-US Presidential contender Bobby Kennedy. In a stirring speech at the University of Kansas, he said that Gross National Product counts “air pollution and cigarette advertising” but “does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

By and large, we still prioritize production over purpose, commercial activity over connection. When it comes to what really makes life worth living, we can continue down a path we know might only lead us astray, or we can finally answer the call of Sarkozy, Sen, Stiglitz, and Kennedy, and start making our metrics count.

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