By Brock Pierce
In America, we talk a lot about our economy. As the world’s biggest national economy for well over a century, perhaps it’s no surprise that we have been proud of measuring it and displaying its increasing numbers. Yet, since the early days, we’ve also known about the hazards of overvaluing the measurement of our economy.
In 1934, when Simon Kuznets presented to Congress his report that formulated the Gross National Product (GNP) that would later become the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), he warned us of the limitations of relying on measurements of the economy. On page 5 of his report he stated, “With quantitative measurements especially, the definiteness of the result suggests, often misleadingly, a precision and simplicity in the outlines of the object measured. Measurements of national income are subject to this type of illusion and resulting abuse, especially since they deal with matters that are the center of conflict of opposing social groups where the effectiveness of an argument is often contingent upon oversimplification.”
It was because of the pains of the Great Depression, starting in 1929, that Congress had given Mr. Kuznets the task of developing an effective measurement of the national economy. Lacking a reliable measure of economic activity meant that policy makers were uncertain what impacts their attempts at regrowing the economy were having. By creating a sort of “score” for America’s economy, Kuznets offered government officials a way to show voters that they were working to “win the game” of ending the Great Depression.
Even after the Great Depression came to an end in the late 1930s, the “scoreboard” approach to economics proved to be helpful in guiding macroeconomic policy decisions. Before and during World War II, America’s focus on increasing the size of its economy helped our country to prepare for and meet the demands of waging war simultaneously across both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. After World War II, measuring our economy helped us to shift from an industrial wartime economy to the world’s most prosperous peacetime economy.
Because it proved helpful in the past, American politicians often repeated the call to grow America’s economy, as if growing the economy was the answer to every problem. Of course, there were exceptions. As Robert F. Kennedy said in a speech on March 18, 1968, “Our Gross National Product…if we should judge the United States of America by that – counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets… Yet, the Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”
By replacing our nation’s traditional focus on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness with the pursuit of increased GDP, we have done a great disservice to ourselves. We have used an increase in GDP to justify things such as greed, pollution, environmental destruction, climate destabilization, wastefulness, overconsumption, the inability of mothers to afford to stay at home to raise their children, poverty, poor health, overpriced healthcare, student debt, extreme levels of deficit spending, extreme wealth inequality, and much more. We’ve allowed all of these threats to life, liberty, and happiness to pile up as debts waiting to be paid while believing that somehow we’re still “winning” because we’ve maintained a high score on our GDP.
At this time as a country, it has become essential for us to revalue life, liberty, and happiness by devaluing the importance of GDP. Many attempts have been made to offer “alternative scores”, ways to measure a nation’s success with social indicators, indicators of environmental health, alternative economic indicators, and more. Yet, it’s time for us to learn the lesson that Mr. Kuznets gave us. There is no simple measurement that we can use, no score for us to win at the game of life or the game of nationhood.
Instead of focusing on scoreboards, good governance requires us to continuously ask ourselves the questions posed by our core national values. By our decisions, are we increasing or decreasing life? By our decisions, are we increasing or decreasing liberty? By our decisions, are we increasing or decreasing happiness? Perhaps we won’t always agree on the answers but that doesn’t mean that we cannot agree on the importance of asking such questions.
It is time for us to release our hold on old fixations and instead reaffirm our commitment to timeless truths. It is time for America to value the life, liberty, and happiness of all Americans — far more than any number, metric, or indicator. It is time for American politics to stop exploiting the life, liberty, and happiness of the American people to gain a higher score in the global economic game. It is time for American government to care for all Americans.