Misinterpreting Kuznets

For years I’ve been thinking that something just doesn’t feel right with the world. It started with when I joined PricewaterhouseCoopers in 2005 and would observe how we’d always be ‘growing’ by 15% a year. Little things didn’t feel right like despite growing, people felt strained; and who cares if we grew that much? Growth in business is justified on the basis of economies of scale whereby the bigger we got the more efficient business was, but fresh out of university, I couldn’t help think about the other side of that theory: diseconomies of scale, where the bigger we got the more *inefficient* we were.  And if we grew, what would that mean? A pay rise? Well, it better because if my salary grew below the inflation rate, I’d be effectively getting paid less. Our society was set up like this never-ending tread mill. Make more money, get to spend more money; spend more money, need to make more money.

Two years I go, I admitted I didn’t know the answer but I knew the end goal was “happiness”. And instead of measuring success based on wealth, I’ve come to appreciate success comes from wellness. We don’t just want an increased standard of living, which related to the definition of wealth, is about the accumulation of capital and generation of income. No, what we human’s want is quality of life, which like the concept of wellness, is about allowing us human’s to be at our optimum.

And I’m not the first to realise that.

The US Congress commissioned Simon Kuznets to create a system that would measure the nation’s productivity in order to better understand how to tackle the Great Depression. Despite this, he immediately said not to use it as a measure for welfare. He invented the concept of GDP to do this, and had this to say in his very first report to the U.S. Congress in 1934: “…the welfare of a nation [can] scarcely be inferred from a measure of national income…”. In 1962, Kuznets stated: “Distinctions must be kept in mind between quantity and quality of growth, between costs and returns, and between the short and long run. Goals for more growth should specify more growth of what and for what.”

Everyone knows GDP has weaknesses. First of all, it doesn’t count the things that can’t be measured. Externalities like pollution, which during my university days a decade ago were justified as not being included in the economy because they couldn’t be measured, simply were ignored in economics as if they didn’t exist. (And thank God Australia is leading the way with the carbon tax, to help correct this fundamental flaw in economics.) But also just as problematic, is the fact unpaid labour isn’t counted.

Why does this matter? Because policy decisions are being made, and it biases activity that can be measured. Spending money on pollution cleanup, is seen as a much better way to operate than preserving the environment which doesn’t lead to income. This simplistic way of measuring not only will divert wealth creation (as true costs are not measured, distorting appropriate decisions), but it also doesn’t discriminiate on the inputs to production so that true quality of life value is created rather than just standard of life which chases income generation.

As this great piece six years ago by The Atlantic states:

Politicians generally see this decay through a well-worn ideological lens: conservatives root for the market, liberals for the government. But in fact these two ‘sectors’ are, in this respect at least, merely different sides of the same coin: both government and the private market grow by cannibalizing the family and community realms that ultimately nurture and sustain us.

I think what we need to do is realise, that wealth creation and its associated metric GDP, is simply one dimension to us being happy as humans. A second is our health, because without being alive and able to enjoy life, then what’s the point? What value is there in society if you’re dead before you get to contribute to it? And so with that, why isn’t life expectancy considered a core part of the measurement of our society’s progress, equal or even above what GDP is?

A third however, is something I know but still can’t place my finger on yet. I don’t know what to call it, other than perhaps the pursuit of happiness. When we manage to feed ourselves and keep a roof on top of our heads, then what? We need to be engaged in the mind, always looking to grow internally. We want to learn and experience the world, and always feel like we are progressing. Life’s a journey to Ithaca, where we “pray that the road is long”. And the science backs this up: our dopamine levels are at its highest at the signal of a reward (as opposed to simply the pursuit and then the actual achievement of it).

This is not me trying to push a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. The problem does exist and it matters: we’re using growth as a proxy for our progress, and yet damaging the environment that keeps us alive which is one side affect of this approach. Our whole system of measure is GDP growth which is fundamentally predicated on the basis of a rising population, but in the next 50 years we’re going to see the western world’s population stagnate which will de-accelerate GDP growth. What are we going to do when we stop growing? We’re operating on a house of cards.

Most pressingly, we are now experiencing one of the biggest financial crises of our collective conciseness with our political leaders unable to decide or able to execute a solution to get out of the mess. Which is ironic, because the concept of GDP was invented the last time we experienced global economic turmoil.

It makes you wonder that maybe the solution isn’t just action, but an entirely different way to how we see ourselves.

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