The commission divided its work into three parts. The first deals with familiar criticisms of GDP as a measure of well-being. It takes no account of the depreciation of capital goods, and so overstates the value of production. Moreover, the value of production is based on market prices, but not everything has a price. The list of such things includes more than the environment. The worth of services not supplied through markets, such as state health care or education, owner-occupied housing or unpaid child care by parents, is “imputed”—estimated, using often rickety assumptions—or left out, even though private health care and schooling, renting and child-minding are directly measured.
The report also argues that official statisticians should concentrate on households’ incomes, consumption and wealth rather than total production. All these adjustments make a difference. In 2005, the commission found, France’s real GDP per person was 73% of America’s. But once government services, household production and leisure are added in, the gap narrows: French households had 87% of the adjusted income of their American counterparts. No wonder Mr Sarkozy is so keen.
Next the commission turns to measures of the “quality of life”. These attempt to capture well-being beyond a mere command of economic resources. One approach quantifies people’s subjective well-being—divided into an overall judgment about their lives (a “ladder of life” score) and moment-by-moment flows of positive and negative feelings. For many years researchers had been spurred on by an apparent paradox: that rising incomes did not make people happier in the long run. Recent studies suggest, though, that countries with higher GDP per person do tend to have higher ladder-of-life scores. Exactly what, beyond income, affects subjective well-being—from health, marital status and age to perceptions of corruption—is much pored over. The unemployed report lower scores, even allowing for their lower incomes. Joblessness hits more than your wallet.
Third, the report examines the well-being of future generations. People alive today will pass on a stock of exhaustible and other natural resources as well as machines, buildings and social institutions. Their children’s human capital (skills and so forth) will depend on investment in education and research today. Economic activity is sustainable if future generations can expect to be at least as well off as today’s. Finding a single measure that captures all this, the report concludes, seems too ambitious. That sounds right. For one thing, statisticians would have to make assumptions about the relative value of, say, the environment and new buildings—not just today, but many years from now. It is probably wiser to look at a wide range of figures.
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