Well-being index may show we have little to bleat about – except productivity, perhaps

The  government  is reported to be  planning  a   “world-first well-being”  budget  in  2019.   It  won’t  be  some “light, fluffy happiness index”, but  will be based, says  Finance  Minister Grant  Robertson, on  indicators  and measures of well-being   which  can be tracked.

It  sounds a  great  idea.  The  government   sees it  as  running in tandem  with the current  measurement of  GDP growth,  which according to Robertson is a  good, long-run  measure of  economic  activity.  But he reckons GDP  doesn’t represent  what  New  Zealanders  regard as  success. He believes  success should be measured  not just through  financial  capital  (by  GDP), but through natural  capital, human capital  and  social  capital.

The government’s enthusiasm   for   tracking  “well-being”  is  apparently  matched in the departments tasked with undertaking the  research,  particularly  Treasury  and  Statistics.  This  contrasts  with  the  slow  progress  made  initially by the previous  administration  in  getting  public  servants to  knuckle down  to  compiling  the  data  on  which  the so-called  “social  investment”  approach  to  welfare  programmes was to be based.

And  when our “well-being” is defined, measured and  finally   published, how might  we react?

If you were to judge by  ministerial lamentations of New Zealanders suffering  from “nine years of neglect”, or by nightly reports on television channels  about  people  living in  cars or  on the streets, the country’s  well-being has never been  lower. We  need to  tax sugar because  two million  Kiwis  will be  obese  by 2038.  Our prisons  are bulging, and  our  mental health is  so  devastatingly  poor  that NZ leads the world in   teen suicides.

We  are  also  clearly  dissatisfied  with the state of the environment.   We  are no longer   clean  and green,  nor  can  we  swim in  the  rivers  where we used to swim, or   even  at  some of the beaches of  Auckland or  Wellington. We  need to lead the world in reducing carbon emissions to  zero

Yet as Professor Tim Hazeldine pointed out  in the  NZ  Herald  this week, even though the number of working age adults on a benefit has exploded from about 40,000 in 1968 to  270,000-plus in March, gross domestic product  has doubled over the half century  from $25,000 per person to  $50,000, measured in  today’s prices.  “So, how do you think  you would get by now on half your current income, as your demographic counterpart did in 1967?”, he asks.

GDP  growth  may  not  be  a  complete   measure of  societal success,  as  Grant Robertson  argues,  but  will a “well-being” index  be any better?

The   government  has set up  so  many  “reviews”   of  government action  (or inaction)  it  clearly  thinks  it  can  unlock  higher levels of  “well-being”, eventually.

But shouldn’t it be insisting  the  best  brains in the Treasury and elsewhere  in the public service  be  applied  to the task of  finding ways to  improve NZ’s  abysmal  productivity,  rather than  first trying to  measure  “well-being”?

Hazeldine  says NZ’s history shows the necessity of  well-paid jobs for all adults who  want  them. “This will require  not more  government  but less”.

Bill  English,  after  eight years  as  Finance  Minister,  contended:

If it was as easy  as  giving money, if I  believed every claim made to me  about the benefit of the  next  $100m, there’d be no  problems in NZ. 

“Most of  those claims are wrong, because the people claiming it’ll make a difference  never go back  and see whether it made a difference…the obligation (of government) is to  ensure the individual can realise his (or her) aspirations. But  government looks after the weakest worst”.

That’s something to  think about  when our well-being index is  delivered.

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