Dr David Harvie, School of Management, University of Leicester:
In the UK, mention ‘the good life’ and the chances are you’ll evoke images of Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal in the 1970s sitcom of that name, digging up the garden of their Surbiton semi and drinking homemade peapod burgundy. But in parts of contemporary Latin America, in particular Bolivia and Ecuador, the good life, or more accurately the good living – buen vivir – has a slightly different meaning.
Buen vivir is a concept which means life in harmony and equilibrium – between men and women, between different communities and, above all, between human beings and the natural environment of which they are part. It means living well – enjoying a good life, if you like – but living sustainably and as part of a community, without exploiting others or the ecosystem. In fact, the term could roughly be translated as ‘collective well-being’. Although undoubtedly a number of UK citizens are enjoying a good life of one sort or another, there isn’t much evidence that we are practising good living. Which is where the Office for National Statistics (ONS) comes in, with its new ‘measures of national well-being’.
The new measures can be traced to a commission established by French president Nicolas Sarkozy at the beginning of 2008. Sarkozy invited Nobel prize-winning economists Joseph Stiglitz, former World Bank Chief Economist turned vituperative critic, and Amartya Sen, whose work has inspired the UN’s Human Development Index, along with two dozen other prominent economists, to examine the adequacy of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and GDP per person as indicators of individual and societal well-being and happiness. The resulting report pointed out numerous problems with GDP. Noting that well-being is ‘multidimensional’, it instead proposed that a ‘dashboard’ of various indicators should be used to guide policy.
In November 2010 David Cameron announced that he had instructed Britain’s ONS to develop measures of well-being, seeking to measure ‘our progress as a country not just by how our economy is growing, but by how our lives are improving, not just by our standard of living, but by our quality of life.’ According to the Prime Minister’s Office, ‘potential indicators include health, levels of education, inequalities in income and the environment’.
These developments are exciting. It’s exciting that so many prominent members of the economics mainstream are questioning the value of economic value – most perfectly captured by measures such as GDP. And it’s exciting that the new ONS measures of ‘national well-being’ may open up spaces in Britain in which society more generally can discuss how much it really values value.
To give some everyday examples: we may value free time, time with our kids, time to cook a meal for friends, but our expression of these values doesn’t ‘count’ in the GDP figures. What ‘counts’ instead is time spent earning a wage, money spent on professional childcarers and restaurant meals.
The difficulty lies less with the proposed new indicators per se, than with their relationship to ‘policy’. GDP, GDP per person and the headline economic growth (the rate at which GDP is growing – or contracting) matter not because statistical agencies around the world measure them, but because they express some fundamental truth about our society and the way it is organised. Economic growth measures, more or less accurately, the rate at which ever more aspects of our lives, our livelihoods and the environment in which we live them are being drawn into, and conditioned by, economic relationships – the market. Economic growth is a good proxy for new profit-making potential for business. And, like the hammerhead shark that must keep moving in order to breath and live, the capitalist economy must keep growing else it will die.
There is little economic value and little profit in citizens (wage-)working less – and therefore having more time to do the other important things we value. Any notion of a ‘work-life balance’ is bad for business – and hence bad for the economy.
Increasing ‘national well-being’, then, is not so much a question of attempting to measure it, but of transforming an economy in which the profit-motive is dominant. In a sense, this is obvious. We already have most of the measures that would be clustered on the dashboard proposed by Stiglitz, Sen and their colleagues. And the readings they display aren’t reassuring. We know inequality has widened enormously, with the Gini coefficient higher now than it has been at any time in the past three decades, and the income-share of UK’s richest 1% up from 4% in the mid-1970s to well over 10% now. We also know – from the recent Institute for Fiscal Studies briefing – that the Cameron government’s austerity measures will only make inequality worse. We know that we are working harder and working longer, with Britons working on average 45 hours each week (compared with a European average of 40-odd hours), with unsurprisingly malign effects on our health. We also know that – for those still in employment – this is getting significantly worse in the context of recession and austerity. We know that climate change is making our environment less hospitable to human life, and also that governments’ responses have, to date, been woefully inadequate.
So the question – and the challenge – is one of transformation rather of measure. And this brings us back to Latin America and buen vivir or ‘good living’. What distinguishes buen vivir is its explicitly political nature. It’s not just an idea. It’s a political project for life that has emerged from social movements and (mostly indigenous) communities. It is born of practices of participatory democracy, which involve matters of importance being discussed by all whom they concern, consensus being sought whenever possible, and leaders – frequently chosen by lot, similar to ancient Greek democracy and our own present-day jury system – who can only ‘command by obeying’. (Clearly this sort of democracy bears no resemblance to the democracy of Latin America’s frequently-corrupt political systems – or, indeed, British representative democracy, in which politicians are able to mislead the public and renege on manifesto pledges with impunity.) Buen vivir is grounded in social relationships far richer and more human than those mediated by the discipline of money, ‘competition’ and ‘efficiency’ and the latest set of league tables.
The Office for National Statistics’ plans to measure ‘national well-being’ are exciting for their potential to spark debates on the deeper questions which underlie issues of inequality, health, education and so on. But to develop and enhance our ‘national well-being’, we will need more than measures. Nor will such a project will be realised by politicians. Rather, we will all – 60 million of us, six and a half billion of us – need to keep asking the questions: What do we value? How do we practice democracy? What sort of planet do we wish to bequeath our grandchildren? And keep asking them. And see where they take us.
Dr David Harvie is Senior Lecturer in Finance and Political Economy in the University of Leicester School of Management.
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