Sums of human happiness 14/04/14

Niaz Alam, Dhaka Tribune op-ed 14 April 2014

“Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable.”

So said Mark Twain in one of his less quoted, but surely most self-evident aphorisms.

How happy are you, for instance? The World Happiness Report produced independently for the UN last year, ranks Bangladesh at a lowly, but perhaps unsurprising 108th out of 148 states surveyed.

On the other hand, the Happy Planet Index, produced by the green orientated think tank New Economics Foundation, ranked Bangladesh in a much better 11th place. This was also not surprising as NEF’s score is weighted by such factors as a country’s global ecological footprint and life expectancy.

The trend for policy-makers to seek alternative indicators of economic progress to purely financial measures such as GDP, is a worthy one. It should not too readily be dismissed as a response to a so-called “first-world problem.”

Purely economic activity everywhere, as recorded by the gross domestic product’s measure of the market value for all officially recognised goods and services produced within a country, does not take account of negative social and environmental impacts. For example, a fatal road accident in the United States boosts economic output, by increasing activity and providing employment for ambulance drivers, hospitals, insurance companies, and lawyers. Whereas the increasing number of commuters in Dhaka taking to their bicycles, which is clearly good for the environment and individuals’ health and happiness, may not register as an increase in GDP if it reduces the amount spent on cars and rickshaws.

There are sound reasons for policy makers to look to alternative measures of progress than just GDP. The Millennium Development Goals, against which Bangladesh has performed quite well, are perhaps the best and most useful example along with the UN Human Development Index.

By measuring absolute indicators for health, education, and welfare, these have proved increasingly useful in providing pointers for progress.

For a start, they can less easily be manipulated. Governments around the world are all too prone to adjusting GDP measures in their own interest.

Nigeria has recently managed to virtually double the size of its economy to $510bn, by rebasing the statistics it uses to measure GDP. Ghana did something similar in 2010 and just last week, the UK government has been talking about how it could dramatically improve statistics for personal savings rates, by “fast forwarding” the accrual of pension entitlements.

As plenty of people have been pointing out in the case of Nigeria, its doubling of GDP makes little difference to the lives of ordinary citizens. Decades of misspent oil income have skewed wealth towards elites, leaving the majority of the population languishing with an average life expectancy of just 52 (as against over 70 for Bangladeshis last year). Hence, though it may now be Africa’s largest economy, per capita it remains three times poorer than South Africa.

We cannot get too far ahead of ourselves here. As home to the world’s eighth largest population, Bangladesh’s $127bn economy has huge potential to grow from its current ranking of 57th biggest GDP in the world. But the challenge, according to World Bank president Jim Yong Kim, is also that Bangladesh is one of just ten countries that are home to over 80% of the “extreme poor” of the world. (The others being China, Congo, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Tanzania.)

So perhaps the concept of “happiness economics” popularised by Bhutan’s former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck in the 1970s, via Bhutan prioritising the pursuit of “gross national happiness” over GDP, is inherently more attractive to people in wealthier nations whose basic needs are already met.

These types of rankings may perhaps be caricatured as a sort of pseudoscience. But then mainstream economics itself is hardly free of similar vagaries. If it wasn’t economists could make everyone rich, no? The paradox is that even though we can’t just suddenly flick a switch to turn off human contributions to climate change, statistics and supercomputers do allow humans to forecast the weather better and better every week. Economic forecasts however are far less reliable, despite the fact governments have plenty more levers available to change policy and improve the economic climate.

Ironically, just as happiness measures gain traction in wealthier countries, Bhutan itself is changing fast. Nepali and religious minorities sometimes disagree that they were ever that happy of course, but now that Bhutan has allowed in television and joined the ranks of countries with regular multi-party elections, one can only suspect everyone’s “unhappiness ratings” may also rise as its economy grows.

Such perhaps is human nature, and the conundrum of providing material needs in an environmentally and socially sustainable way.

But I still believe there is mileage in the idea, as it has long been established that while there is some correlation between money and happiness, this tails off rapidly as incomes rise.

There is still much to be said for the aspiration of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” proclaimed by the United States Declaration of Independence. An idea directly emulated by Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam’s 1945 Declaration of Independence, (although to little avail in deterring B52s), and directly inserted into Article 13 of the 1947 Constitution of Japan.

Of course, with so many millions of poor people, Bangladeshi policy-makers have a moral and practical duty to increase national wealth by growing GDP per head. But this is no reason to lose sight of other indicators for sustainability, well-being, and progress.

There is a middle ground between “Money can’t buy you love” and the Marxist (Groucho) view that “while money can’t buy happiness, it certainly lets you choose your own form of misery.”

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