Although you wouldn’t have known it from the media coverage at the time, President Sarkozy did something far more remarkable in January 2008 than get engaged to the singer and model Carla Bruni. While angry French leftists were burning Bruni’s CDs on public bonfires, her new fiancé announced his intention to challenge our most intractable economic orthodoxy: Gross Domestic Product.
Soon enough, the President had set up an impressive commission of Nobel Prize-winning economists and social scientists to address the question of how to move beyond GDP as a measure of economic performance and social progress. The group was to be led by former chief economist at the World Bank, Joseph Stiglitz, and would include development guru Amartya Sen, psychologist Daniel Kahneman and the economist-turned-climate-change-hero Lord Stern.
A year and a half on and the Commission has published its final report. The vision is bold – it recognises that “new political narratives are necessary to identify where our societies should go” and advocates “a shift of emphasis from a ‘production-oriented’ measurement system to one focused on the well-being of current and future generations”. Specifically, it recommends that governments should measure subjective well-being – people’s experience of their quality of life – and recognises that these should be textured and multi-dimensional.
These calls are admirable, and echo what nef has long been calling for, particularly in our National Accounts of Well-being report from January 2009.
But there’s a problem. The report carries many recommendations, and there’s a risk that politicians will latch onto the easier ones, without really taking home the big message: namely, that we need to radically shake up our understanding of progress and success. For example, the report shies away from suggesting an overall measure of progress, such as nef’s Happy Planet Index, leading to the risk that GDP will remain unchallenged as the de facto indicator of overall success, despite it never being intended that way.
But for now the Commission, and indeed, dare we say it, Sarkozy, deserve plenty of praise for their boldness. Let’s see if he and other politicians put into practice the advice they are given by the world’s best economists: to move beyond GDP and measure well-being.