Genuine Progress

I got an email from Mike Nickerson‘s mailing list the other day containing a fascinating rundown on the creation of a Genuine Progress Index for Canada.

The idea of the GPI is that it would replace GDP as a measure of the economic health of a nation. GDP is simply a measure of all the economic activity occurring in a country, without distinguishing between beneficial, remedial and detrimental activities. So, for instance, the building of a new elementary school, the medical treatment of people with respiratory disease caused by poor urban air quality, and the sale of lead-contaminated toys to children will all show up in the GDP as “good”. This doesn’t give a clear picture of how well the economy is contributing to the well-being of the country – just of how fast it’s growing.

Enter the GPI, which tries to make these distinctions. It would aim to measure things like living standards, health, community vitality, environmental quality, education, time use, civic engagement, and arts, culture and recreation. It would give a more balanced picture: not merely economic activity in the abstract, but what the economy is being used for.

Needless to say, that’s really hard. It’s one thing to measure numbers, but when you have to start making value judgements to go along with them, there’s a lot of room for disagreement to enter the equation.

So who’s making the judgements? Well, not the government, yet. The House of Commons passed Motion M-385 several years ago: “That, in the opinion of this House, the government should develop and report annually on a set of social, environmental and economic indicators of the health and well-being of people, communities and ecosystems in Canada.” But they didn’t really follow up on it further. (If you think they should, write to your MP! Go here and click on “Current Parliamentarians” to find your representative.)

Meanwhile, partly funded by the Atkinson Foundation and affiliating with the University of Waterloo, a non-profit, independent group called the Canadian Institute of Wellbeing is doing it themselves. They’re just released their first report, which is available as a PDF from their website.

Hopefully this idea will catch on, and be officially adopted by the government, superseding current measurements. We need to start thinking more about what the economy is doing, and can do, for us as people, as citizens and as members of communities, and this is a better way to do it than anything we’re using now.

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