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Money can’t buy you love !
Thursday, 16 October 2008 10:40

In their seminal paper, Jeffrey Sachs and Andrew Warner demonstrate that open economies grow much faster than closed economies.
But does higher GNP (gross national product), the production of goods and services, improve human welfare and even happiness.

Debates over such issues are not new.  Just a few decades ago, the Beatles sang "money can't buy you love".  And a few years later, Robert F. Kennedy offered the following thoughts on what GNP means in an address to the University of Kansas on 18 March 1968.

"Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product ... if we should judge America by that - counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans."

It is probably true that rising GNP does not guarantee rising human welfare or happiness.  For example, in many developing countries, like China, rapid economic growth has caused environmental degradation which engenders human suffering.  And while globalisation and economic growth have made many rich, it has also contributed to economic insecurity and precarity for many poorer people.  This is why sustainable development has become such an important concept -- this is development which seeks to balance economic, social and environmental factors. 

Globalisation and technological change have boosted economic growth, but they have also facilitated the growth of international economic crime like bribery and corruption, money laundering, tax evasion, counterfeiting and piracy, and human trafficking.  Hence, the importance of good governance as a partner of economic growth.

There are many attempts to measure broader concepts of wellbeing than GNP.  For example, the United Nations Development Program has created the Human Development Index (HDI) which combines measures of life expectancy, literacy, educational attainment, and GNP per capita for countries worldwide (http://hdr.undp.org/en/).  It purports to measure human development, the process of widening the options of persons, giving them greater opportunities for education, health care, income, employment, etc.  This is important for many reasons, including the fact that in much of the developing world life expectancy has risen much more over the last half century than has GNP per capita.  The world’s top five countries in terms of human development are Iceland, Norway, Australia, Canada and Ireland, while the US comes twelfth.

You must however be very careful of all these alternative measures of welfare. For example, Gross National Happiness (GNH) is an attempt to define quality of life in more holistic and psychological terms than Gross National Product.  It was coined by Bhutan's King Jigme Singye Wangchuck in 1972 in response to criticism that his economy was growing poorly.  Can we really believe that the Bhutanese are very happy, even though they are poor?

It may be trendy to look beyond GNP for indicators of human welfare.  But, do not forget that high levels of GNP can provide the resources to solve social and environmental problems.  And when incomes stagnate or fall, as they have for many American workers in recent decades, you certainly hear the complaints.  You can’t go past GNP.  

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