GDP vs. GNH: Implications for Development

In reviewing the readings on GDP, I was reminded of research and documentaries I’d seen previously on “Gross National Happiness,” an alternative method of assessing national “productivity” originally pioneered in the country of Bhutan (more info: http://www.grossnationalhappiness.com/).

Gross National Happiness (GNH) involves using social science formulas and intuitive reasoning both as a decision-making tool for government as well as an assessment of societal health and progress.  It measures what economists would refer to as “utility,” or the joy derived from consumption or other behaviors, and aggregates it for the whole country.  While GDP measures how much is produced or consumed, GNH aims to measure how much happiness that production or consumption actually generates.

Proponents of instituting GNH-style measurements around the world argue that this will move us to more comprehensively healthy economic and social policies that will drive us toward consumption that values sustainability, well-being, and equity.  Opponents argue that it’s soft science rife with subjectivity and a bouquet of socialism.

Regardless of one’s position, the idea begs the question: if a city-level version of GNH were implemented (and embraced) in Seattle, how would our developmental trajectory be altered?  A couple of educated guesses:

1) We would pump significantly more money into affordable housing.  Homelessness is a major drag on aggregate happiness, and it’s a tragically large problem in Seattle.  Our lagging GNH indicators would pressure politicians to allocate greater resources to provide homes for the homeless.  Most of the activities of the homeless are not captured in GDP, but a well-executed GNH model would incorporate the struggles and maladies of Seattle’s homeless residents.

2) Public transit and bicycle infrastructure would explode (in a good way).  Time spent in one’s car, in traffic, has been found in studies to be one of the greatest contributors to chronic stress in the U.S.  The pro-car lobby would take a serious blow when the GNH data were disaggregated to find that cities with high-performance, widely-used transit systems and bike infrastructure (ex. Amsterdam) are dominating the happiness market.

Should we try to be Bhutan?  Absolutely not.  Should we steal an idea that has dramatically improved the quality of life of its residents over the past 15 years?  In this case, I think theft is the only appropriate option.

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