GDP and the Good Life

There is a lot of thinking, or something like thinking, going on these days about what “well-being” really means. How do we define or measure human well-being? French President Nicolas Sarkozy decided to take a stab at the question last year, arguing that we need to look at more than just national wealth to measure national happiness. Anyone who has visited Louis XIV’s opulent palace at Versailles, and knows what happened to the French monarchy thereafter, will understand that wealth is a ticklish subject for French leaders. Sarkozy didn’t kick off a revolution this time, but he started a trend.

A seminar held in the sprawling contemporary (i.e., ugly and inconvenient) European Parliament in Brussels last month explored a related topic, “Rethinking well-being: how to keep Europe on the sustainability track.” Sustainability generally refers to preserving the environment, especially by reducing global warming.

One of the participants in the seminar distinguished between the “dead economy” and the “living economy.” Showing a series of PowerPoint computer slides on a big screen, she explained how the “dead economy” refers to measuring well-being solely by gross domestic product (GDP), or the sum of a nation’s economic production. She presented by contrast a complicated slide with lots of “inputs” and lines leading to a more comprehensive, “living” way of measuring the economy. That new way was meant to light the path to a more all-encompassing approach to human well-being. I left feeling not very enlightened.

Of course, no nation has ever judged itself solely by GDP, dead or alive. The closest any nations came to that were those who fell into the twin twentieth-century totalitarianisms—national socialism and communism—and pursued an utterly inhuman materialism that ranged in its methods from human genetic engineering to rampant destruction of the environment to concentration camps.

But the PowerPoint woman was right that the pursuit of material wealth, represented by GDP, is an incomplete way to evaluate human well-being, or, as it used to be called in both the classical and Christian traditions, “happiness” or a “good life.” (Now that “happiness” has come to be associated with fleeting sensations and sentiments, some have tried to substitute “human flourishing” for the older idea). The contemporary West displays much that is manifestly wrong or wanting, much that has disintegrated in the way we live.

President Sarkozy commissioned a distinguished panel, led by Nobel economics laureates Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, to chart a broader course to well-being than just staring at the GDP. That commission also reported on the importance of sustainability to well-being. In announcing the commission’s findings, Stiglitz said, There’s no single number that can capture anything as complex as our society. So what we argue for is the need for an array of carefully-chosen numbers, with a better understanding of the role of each of those numbers. They included other economic factors in their calculus, such as consumption and household prosperity, as well as “social sustainability,” leaving open what that vague category would include. The emphasis was on environmental sustainability, and the entire approach sought to move from one number —the GDP—to more numbers, all empirically and quantitatively measurable.

As usual, Pope Benedict XVI has a better answer. The pope has been consistently clear on the importance of preserving the environment, but also that preservation has to be balanced within the real economy of salvation and the human person. That economy is where one finds authentic well-being, happiness, and the good life. As he said in Caritas in veritate:

In order to protect nature, it is not enough to intervene with economic incentives or deterrents; not even an apposite education is sufficient. These are important steps, but the decisive issue is the overall moral tenor of society. If there is a lack of respect for the right to life and to a natural death, if human conception, gestation and birth are made artificial, if human embryos are sacrificed to research, the conscience of society ends up losing the concept of human ecology and, along with it, that of environmental ecology. It is contradictory to insist that future generations respect the natural environment when our educational systems and laws do not help them to respect themselves. The book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development. Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others. It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other. Herein lies a grave contradiction in our mentality and practice today: one which demeans the person, disrupts the environment and damages society.

That approach will be hard to measure with numbers. It will not easily fit onto a PowerPoint slide, and it won’t catch on quickly in Brussels (or Washington). But it captures the real answer, the real living economy, for those who want to get beyond GDP as the way to find happiness and the good life.

Joseph Wood is an itinerant philosopher and easily accessible hermit affiliated with Cana Academy, Walsh University, The Catholic University of America, and the University of Notre Dame Australia, none of which bears any responsibility for his errors or missteps.