In Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding—and How We Can Improve the World Even More, Charles Kenny argues that Africans are seeing a much higher quality of life despite what their nations' gross domestic product measurements show. At The Nation, Eyal Press writes The Sarkozy-Stiglitz Commission's Quest to Get Beyond GDP
Consider the fact that between 1970 and 1999 the percentage of sub-Saharan Africans who can read and write doubled, from less than one-third of the adult population to two-thirds. Or that in northern Africa, life expectancy rose from forty-eight years in 1962 to sixty-nine in 2002. Across the continent, enrollment in primary education has surged, while infant mortality has fallen. Our image of African stagnation is closely tied to our fixation with GDP, Kenny suggests, producing a highly distorted picture of reality. “The biggest success of development has not been making people richer but, rather…making the things that really matter—things like health and education—cheaper and more widely available,” he contends.
There was a time not long ago when many mainstream economists and policy-makers would have rolled their eyes at such a claim. Far fewer are likely to do so today, thanks to the growing realization that, as economists Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen and Jean-Paul Fitoussi argue in another recent book, Mismeasuring Our Lives: Why GDP Doesn’t Add Up, GDP is a deeply flawed indicator of well-being. Their book is a streamlined version of the final report produced by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, which was created in 2008 by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to identify the limits of GDP and to outline new metrics that take things like education, gender equality and environmental sustainability into account.
More than a few policy-makers have taken note. In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister David Cameron recently directed the Office for National Statistics to conduct a nationwide survey asking citizens what they believe should be used to measure happiness, with the goal of formulating policy “focused not just on the bottom line, but on all those things that make life worthwhile.” In Germany, the Bundestag has established a commission on “Growth, Prosperity, Quality of Life” to develop a more holistic measure of progress. Reforms are under way in Italy, Australia, South Korea, Canada and the United States, where a project called State of the USA, supported by the National Academy of Sciences and numerous prominent foundations, has begun to track some alternative indicators of progress, which will eventually be accessible to citizens online.
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At Daily Kos on this date in 2008:
[From an interview with Denis Hayes, who coordinated the first Earth Day in 1970.]
MB: If, for three minutes, you had the undivided attention of the man or woman who takes the oath of office January 20, 2009, what single piece of advice would you give him or her regarding environmental matters?
HAYES: Each President has six months to accomplish something. The challenge is to get something significant done and use that success to build momentum, rather than round onto the shoals the way the Clinton Health Care initiative did in 1993 -- leading directly to the loss of control of both houses of Congress in 1994. The towering environmental issue of our time is climate change. You should, in an utterly transparent effort, assign someone you trust completely to organize a task force to swiftly design -- with transparent public input -- a climate policy that will catapult America from global laggard to global leader in this vital field, within 30 days of taking office. The world needs to be reassured that America is back in the game.
The core element should be an upstream cap and auction program -- regulating carbon not at the millions of places where it is burned but at the 2,000 places where it enters the economy -- oil fields, mine mouths, pipelines from Canada and Mexico, ports. The number of carbon permits auctioned off should decrease by 3 percent per year, and they should not be "off-settable" by any action that does not stabilize carbon for geological time periods (i.e., planting a tree does not let you burn coal.) The (eventually very large) proceeds from the auction should be allocated in portions in ways that accelerate the transition to a super-efficient new energy economy powered by renewable energy sources. The long-term energy future will be dominated by direct solar electricity and base-load geothermal.