Posted by: mariannedc | January 11, 2012

Truly Measuring Prosperity

New Measures of Well-Being Needed

By Pamela Haines, Quaker social justice educator with a concern for economics and the environment

It’s useful to be able to measure things, and there’s something reassuring about things that can be measured.  Economics prides itself on being a science based on measurable data. We measure interest rates and return on investments and median income and consumer spending and stock market activity and profit margins—and we can rely on the accuracy of all these measurements.

The flaw in this system is so fundamental that it’s hard to detect:  in order to have a science of economics, built from accurate measurement, we have to leave out of the system everything that cannot be measured.  Happiness, human connection, sense of purpose, security—since there’s no satisfactory measure for any of these, they have no place in the picture.  Neither clean air nor quiet nor open space nor free time have any measurable economic value, adding nothing to the GDP, while polluting industries, leaf blowers, urban sprawl and long work hours are all part of our nation’s wealth.

We don’t have to throw out measurement altogether, but when we’re dealing with human beings we need a little more humility, and a little more understanding of the importance of that which cannot be measured.

The state of Maryland has developed a Genuine Progress Indicator to measure how development activities impact long-term prosperity, both positively and negatively. And the United Kingdom is developing a way of measuring the subjective well-being of its citizens.



  1. Thank you for this reflection Pamela! It seems to me that we’re all about measuring pieces and parts — assuming that all parts add up to the whole. However, there is something deeper that happens when one considers the web of life. Lots of pieces and parts work together in making something happen – so if we’re constantly measuring a piece (GDP, for example) we can never get the whole story.

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