Saturday, September 18, 2010

Getting richer as we mess up our world

I guess you've heard the good news: the devastation of the Christchurch earthquake will be a godsend to New Zealand's gross domestic product, giving it an almighty and much-needed boost.

So maybe it's a pity earthquakes don't happen more often. Perhaps we could do the Kiwis a favour and send our air force bombers over there to use a few cities for target practice.

If you think this sounds stupid, you're right. To anyone in their right mind, an earthquake that destroys many buildings, roads, bridges and vehicles - and disrupts many people's lives - can't possibly be a good thing.

But it will boost gross domestic product. GDP measures market production (and the income that production generates). So as the South Islanders spend a couple of billion repairing and rebuilding their main city, much extra production will occur and many additional jobs will be created.

But what about the loss of all the valuable assets destroyed by the quake - doesn't that count? Short answer: no. GDP is a sum that's all pluses and no minuses. It counts the benefits, but ignores the costs.

It doesn't count the destruction caused by natural disasters, nor the depletion of renewable and non-renewable resources. Production involves the emission of many forms of pollution, but this cost too is ignored.

If the clearing of land to build a town involves destroying the habitat of animals, perhaps leading to their extinction, the cost of the clearing and the building counts as a plus, but the loss of habitat or species doesn't count as a minus.

So, does that make GDP a giant con job? Yes and no. Economists will tell you GDP is an accurate measure of what it's intended to measure: market production and national income; it's not, and was never intended to be, a measure of the nation's well-being.

But this is disingenuous. Economists don't understand it's possible to know things without that knowledge being reflected in our behaviour. And though all economists know GDP is not a measure of well-being, they still treat it as though it is, obsessing over it, ignoring other indicators and encouraging us to do the same.

If GDP is so defective as a measure of well-being or social progress, why doesn't someone try to fix it? Well, many people have tried, but they've had little success. Trouble is, many of the factors affecting our well-being can't be measured in dollars, so they can't be included in the sum that is GDP.

This is the conclusion our own Bureau of Statistics soon came to when it set out to answer the question: is life in Australia getting better? To answer that you need to look at a diverse range of indicators and it's not possible to convert those indicators to a common basis so they can be added up to give a single, summary indicator.

Instead, each year the bureau produces Measures of Australia's Progress. It collects 17 indicators, gathered under three headings - economy, society and environment - trying to judge whether we've progressed or regressed on each indicator over the past 10 years.

Its latest issue was released this week to coincide with its NatStats conference on the topic, "Measuring What Counts: economic development, well-being and progress in 21st century Australia".

It shouldn't surprise you we've made progress on most of the economic indicators. Real net national disposable income (about the most meaningful derivative of GDP) increased from $35,000 a year per person in 1999 to $45,300 in 2009. It grew at an average rate of 2.6 per cent a year, well up on 1.5 per cent annual growth for the previous decade.

The nation's real net worth (assets minus liabilities) grew at the average rate of 0.9 per cent a year over the decade to reach $314,000 per person.

But not all the key economic indicators are good. The affordability of rent by low-income households - that is, housing costs as a proportion of gross income for low-income renters - has stayed constant at 27 per cent over the decade.

And the level of "multifactor productivity" - a measure of the efficiency with which the economy transforms inputs into outputs - has been relatively flat throughout most of the decade. So our economic growth came more from using additional inputs than from using inputs more efficiently.

With that mixed picture on the economy, let's move on to the key social indicators. Over the past decade, life expectancy at birth has increased by 2.2 years for girls and 3.3 years for boys. Over the same period, the proportion of people aged 25 to 64 who have a vocational or higher education qualification has risen from 49 per cent to 63 per cent. And the annual average rate of unemployment fell from 6.9 per cent to 5.6 per cent.

On crime, 6.3 per cent of all Australians aged 15 and over say they were victims of at least one assault in 2008-09. On family, community and social cohesion, there's no summary measure that captures the story. But the proportion of children living without an employed parent has fallen from 18 per cent to 13 per cent; the proportion of adults doing voluntary work during a year has risen by half to 34 per cent, and suicide rates have fallen for both sexes.

Turning to the environment, the past decade has seen the number of threatened fauna species increase from 312 to 427. In that time our net greenhouse gas emissions per year have increased by 16 per cent.

We have no summary indicator on our use of land, but the amount of annual land-clearing has fallen by a third, whereas the area of native forest remaining has fallen by 10 per cent. There's no summary indicator of our use and abuse of inland waters, oceans and estuaries. The volume of waste generated in Australia has nearly doubled.

We're entitled to draw two conclusions. First, when you drill down you find the general impression of ever-increasing well-being given to us by politicians, business people and economists is misleading. GDP might be growing rapidly, and the available social indicators may be all right, but we're going backwards on most environmental indicators.

Second, it's clear that, historically, much of the bureau's effort has gone into measuring the components of GDP, with too little effort being devoted to measuring the other, social and environmental dimensions of our well-being. Until that imbalance is corrected, the bureau's output will continue to mislead us.