Bhutan was into well-being long before NZ – and the bureaucrats could be an obstacle here

As  the  dust settles   after   last week’s  budget   (or should that be  on last week’s  budget),  it  has been  hard to  find   any  commentators  who  thought it   was  “transformational”.  Those  who  might be  identified as  Left-leaning didn’t  break into raptures;   some who claim to be  independent (Duncan  Garner,  for  example) were  critical  (“what should have been a  triumph  became a nightmare”);  and on the right  a   headline over a  Matthew Hooton  essay (“Well-being  just  Wellington BS”)   was  fairly  typical.              

Of  course, there  were  some  like  Audrey   Young   in the  NZ  Herald who  thought it  was  a  “marketing triumph  for  Ardern and  Robertson so far”,  although   she  sensibly applied  a  caveat   that  slow growth   “could  nix feel-good  factor of the  well-being  Budget”.

Across  the  Tasman,    commentary  on  the  NZ  budget   was  highly  laudatory,  particularly  from those pundits   who  were still red-faced from predicting  a Labour shoo-in   at  the  Federal  election.

Further   afield,   the commentary  was  more  clear-eyed.  In the   UK,  the  New  Scientist   headlined   their   report  “NZ  Budget wants to  make people  happy, not  rich—will it work?”.

As  for   Grant  Robertson’s  claim that “we  said  we would change  things—and we have”, the  New  Scientist  noted  NZ is actually not the first country to prioritise wellbeing.  The Kingdom of Bhutan has discussed the need to value happiness over economic growth since the 1970s and made it official with its “gross national happiness index” in 2008.

After a 2009 report commissioned by the then-president Nicholas Sarkozy, the French launched a well-being framework that led to ongoing tracking of “new indicators of wealth”.  These include poverty, education, healthy life expectancy, income inequality and carbon footprint.

The UK also had a short-lived attempt at bringing well-being to the forefront under former prime minister David Cameron.  While it hasn’t overtaken GDP in budget discussions, the UK’s Office for National Statistics continues to track well-being, giving useful insights into the population’s life satisfaction, happiness, employment levels and more.

The  New  Scientist   quotes  Ardern   as  saying: “Today we have laid the foundation for not just one well-being budget, but a different approach for government decision-making altogether,”.

The goal is to downplay the importance of gross domestic product (GDP), a measurement of country’s economic activity that is normally seen as a key indicator of success.

But despite what Ardern and her team suggest, no budgets are solely about GDP.

The  New  Scientist  quotes  a leading  NZ  economist  Arthur  Grimes: “All budgets in pretty much all developed countries are well-being budgets,”.

Grimes notes that the definition of well-being is welfare, and virtually every budget allocates money to services such as poverty, mental health and housing.

Grimes is also sceptical about how well-being will be measured, with around 60 different indicators proposed. “In my view that’s a really scattergun approach,”.

Child poverty is the only metric being tracked, he says, making it difficult to assess whether the budget will achieve what it is designed to do.

One way of tracking well-being is to ask people how they rate their lives overall. But a limitation is that it might take several years for policies to shift the population’s aggregated well-being up or down compared to other countries – beyond the short time-frame politicians operate in.

As  others   see  it,  the   problem   with placing   well-being at the  heart of the budget   is  whether  the  government – even where  it  has  increased  budget  allocations  substantially, as for   mental  health – can   galvanise    the  bureaucracy to   actually  find  the   people, the skills and the full range  of  resources  to    reach  its  targets.

Its  record with  KiwiBuild, for example, doesn’t  inspire confidence.        

And then  there  is  the  criticism expressed by Peter Griffin in his column for the  Dominion-Post: 

More than  halfway  through  its first term, it is clear that the  Labour-led coalition  doesn’t have a vision for how  science  can  transform  an economy”.

Griffin noted there  was a handful of  science-line items offering  welcome  investment in renewable  energy research, the initiative to  reduce  greenhouse gas emissions  from  agriculture, and the effort to stop kauri  dieback – but there was  no substantive new  funding  for the fundamental  research   that  could actually  transform the economy.

Nor, he might have added,  to  transform  well-being.



One thought on “Bhutan was into well-being long before NZ – and the bureaucrats could be an obstacle here

  1. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. That’s the path to wellbeing mapped out by Thomas Jefferson and associates more than 2 centuries ago. The role of government is to protect these inalienable rights. The idea the government itself can create “wellbeing” is an arrogant socialist delusion.

    Liked by 1 person

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