The SanityPrompt

This blog represents some small and occasional efforts to add a note of sanity to discussions of politics and policy. This blog best viewed with Internet Explorer @ 1024x768

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Is Economic Liberation the Same as Liberation from Economists?

Two Princeton scholars (and former teachers of mine) Daniel Kahneman and Alan Krueger have come up with a new metric for measuring how happy people are. Their new research tool aids the study of national well-being. The typical measure of such well-being is per capita GDP - or, income per person. But anyone who has travelled somewhat, and particularly those who have lived abroad, realize that there is a good deal of difference between GDP per capita, the cost of living, and quality of life.

I particularly recall one moment in New Zealand a decade ago when I was traveling around the country by myself and I stopped in a small town to get a bite to eat. I was sitting on the hood of my car, eating a sandwich I had picked up at a local bakery when I saw some children walking by between the ages of 10 and 14. They were in their school uniforms and walking in groups of 2, 3 and 4 or occasionally walking solo. They were obviously heading home for a lunch break or perhaps school had let out early. No adult was nearby and they were walking home on their own - a thought unheard of in most American neighborhoods. But what struck me more than anything else was how childlike they appeared. They were children -- while in America the same kids would be struggling to grow up as fast as they can, vying to look and act like adults with their cell phones, their dramatic love lives, their clothes... Striving to get past childhood -- something that is rightly recognized and protected as a precious gift in so many other cultures.

Several months ago, the New York Times reported on the Kingdom of Bhutan, which has thrown out GDP as a measure of progress and instead crafted a measure called Gross National Happiness. Of course, economists being wedded to consumer sovereignty, there were plenty of them lining up for the reporter to mock the standard saying things like "I don't know how you measure happiness." "Better to let people decide that for themselves." "You don't want to impose your standards of happiness on others." But the questions raised by this measure are good ones and worth pondering, particularly as we approach the holiday season and New Year and find ourselves assessing the quality of our lives. My guess is that the millions of people who feel empty inside and experience spiritual poverty would cry out for a new measure of their well-being that goes beyond the quality of their car, the number of their TV's, the fastness of their fast food, or the square footage of their house.

Does this mean we are less happy than others in other countries? Of course not. But instead of spending all our time in policy discussions that are dominated by how we might structure things so that people can buy more things, maybe we should spend a little more time thinking about how we might structure things so that people are able to have lives of dignity and value which place an emphasis on protecting the things that mean the most to people. Family. Friends. Free time. The quality of their lives. Maybe Democrats might even discover a way to reconnect voters to the issues that concern them most and the ways they might best achieve their goals.

You can read about the Kingdom of Bhutan by looking at this piece that was done by Frontline. You can read about the Princeton study here, and at the NSF website, here.

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