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Beyond GDP

What we measure affects what we do. If we focus only on material wellbeing – on, say, the production of goods, rather than on health, education, and the environment – we become distorted in the same way that these measures are distorted; we become more materialistic.

INCHEON – Just under ten years ago, the International Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress issued its report, Mismeasuring Our Lives: Why GDP Doesn’t Add Up. The title summed it up: GDP is not a good measure of wellbeing. What we measure affects what we do, and if we measure the wrong thing, we will do the wrong thing. If we focus only on material wellbeing – on, say, the production of goods, rather than on health, education, and the environment – we become distorted in the same way that these measures are distorted; we become more materialistic.

We were more than pleased with the reception of our report, which spurred an international movement of academics, civil society, and governments to construct and employ metrics that reflected a broader conception of wellbeing. The OECD has constructed a Better Life Index, containing a range of metrics that better reflect what constitutes and leads to wellbeing. It also supported a successor to the Commission, the High Level Expert Group on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress. Last week, at the OECD’s sixth World Forum on Statistics, Knowledge, and Policy in Incheon, South Korea, the Group issued its report, Beyond GDP: Measuring What Counts for Economic and Social Performance.

The new report highlights several topics, like trust and insecurity, which had been only briefly addressed by Mismeasuring Our Lives, and explores several others, like inequality and sustainability, more deeply. And it explains how inadequate metrics have led to deficient policies in many areas. Better indicators would have revealed the highly negative and possibly long-lasting effects of the deep post-2008 downturn on productivity and wellbeing, in which case policymakers might not have been so enamored of austerity, which lowered fiscal deficits, but reduced national wealth, properly measured, even more.

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