Smiley Face
Creative Commons: Otakuma

Greens are quite rightly suspicious of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the key measure of whether things are going well. It’s a rough and ready measure of the economy. But even economists are aware of its many shortcomings. Various alternative measures have been suggested, some more convoluted than others. A fairly obvious consideration has led to talk of “happiness economics”.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) is in on the act and now regularly publishes figures on what it calls “personal well-being”. One element of this is happiness. Another is health. And anxiety is considered a negative. I looked at the ONS report, and was astonished to find that from 2012 to 2018 happiness has been steadily rising (Figure 1a). Over the whole period, anxiety is said to have gone down (Figure 1b).

The trends reported by the ONS just don’t seem to fit with what I’m seeing. The period covered includes the worst years of austerity, when wages stagnated. In public services, wages adjusted for inflation often declined. Overall, wages are still well below the pre-crash level of 2007. The richest have seen their wealth increase, but you wouldn’t think there were enough of them to skew the results.

Of course, money is by no means the only factor in happiness. But pressure on household finances along with reductions in public services don’t seem too helpful. Nor does the general picture on health. For the first time in many years, life expectancy has gone down, and we are often told of the overweight epidemic and consequent health problems. At the same time, getting treatment has become much harder, with NHS targets being missed by ever wider margins.

It’s also odd that anxiety should be reducing. Maybe people who are politically active think about different things. But one might imagine that the serious consequences of global warming and the lack of action to combat it would be worrying people. Or if they aren’t thinking about that, the arrival of President Trump would appear to increase the chances of nuclear war considerably. The always suspect doctrine of “Mutually Assured Destruction” always relied on the assumption of rational behaviour. That isn’t something we can be too confident about with Trump.

Digging into the figures offers some interesting ideas. Volunteering is increasing. This may be necessitated by government cuts, but people often find it rewarding. Money comes to the fore again as people report, surprisingly, greater satisfaction with their household income. And feelings of belonging to a neighbourhood haven’t changed much, but there are regional differences.

The case of Northern Ireland is instructive. People there have a higher sense of belonging than most of the UK. This is a factor that Greens are very keen to encourage, in opposition to individualism and consumerism. Unfortunately, the same people have very low levels of perceived influence in decision making at any level. The most alienated people are the young and those without strong sectarian ties. It’s certainly a core Green policy to seek to invigorate democracy and encourage involvement. As we might have guessed, there’s evidently a long way to go.

All of this is very interesting, but also very complicated. The picture is far from clear. And can we really reach too many conclusions on the basis of asking a bunch of people how happy they felt yesterday? (Which is what the ONS does). Aren’t we in danger of being sucked into the obsession for measuring things and setting targets?

We know it doesn’t work. Schools are forced into league tables, so they exclude the pupils who are expected to do badly. Or enter them for easier examinations. Hospitals are told not to leave patients on trolleys, so they saw off the wheels and call them beds. Or make patients wait a long time before offering an appointment so as to give the appearance of shorter delays.

The claim that things can’t be managed if they can’t be measured is silly. We can’t measure everything, and experience tells us that setting a target for one thing inevitably means that something else is neglected. And all of this frantic targeting takes time and effort that could be better spent on actually getting results. So I suspect that the best policy is to ridicule all targets, including GDP, and to concentrate on doing the right thing. People will know whether or not things are going well without any league tables.