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.