GDP counts but is no guarantor of economic dignity for all - Businesslive

Sep 20, 2020
20 September 2020 - Though it’s a statistic of dubious reliability, the calculation that 3.7-million Americans claim to have been abducted by aliens is a good fit in Amazon’s blurb on David Boyle’s book The Tyranny of Numbers: Why Counting Can’t Make Us Happy.

Michael Morris

Though it’s a statistic of dubious reliability, the calculation that 3.7-million Americans claim to have been abducted by aliens is a good fit in Amazon’s blurb on David Boyle’s book The Tyranny of Numbers: Why Counting Can’t Make Us Happy.

Never before, the entry notes, “have we attempted to measure as much as we do today”, and yet in contenting ourselves with counting — “if it can’t be measured it can be ignored” — we overlook what numbers don’t tell us and, in particular, that “they won’t tell you precisely what causes what”.

(Another telling example: 138,490 Americans were shot by children under six between 1983 and 1993. Parenting? Gun law? Violence on TV? Criminality? Boredom? Diet? Social media? Misadventure? Precocity?)

I was reminded of Boyle’s book by Ismail Lagardien’s considered contribution, in which he argued that measuring “economic dignity” will, as the subheading puts it, “require a new metric that is more meaningful than GDP” (“Economic dignity is a vital aspect of social justice”, September 15).

Correctly, I believe, he sets out what he calls the “fairly unproblematic” elements of “social justice” as “access (greater equality of access to goods and services); equity (overcoming unfairness caused by unequal access to resources and power); rights (equal and effective political and legal rights); participation (expanded opportunities for real participation in the decisions that govern a person’s life); and protection (the availability of social safety nets and equality before the law)”.

To this he adds the slightly more difficult — but again, valid — elements of “dignity and respect”. His core question is: how would we determine progress? And there’s no doubting the merit of his suggesting that, while not discounting the importance of headline economic measurements, "[one] of the first steps ... is to dispense with the conception of things such as GDP, low inflation, macroeconomic, fiscal and financial stability as ends in themselves”.

He goes on: “I should be clear; these are necessary metrics and aspirations, but if you continue to have a growing precariat, and a potentially volatile periphery at the edges of economic life, you might be heading for disaster. We cannot get away from qualitative judgments when defining the goals of economic dignity.”

We at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) draw constantly on the work of the Centre for Risk Analysis — its Quality of Life Index, conceived in 2017, and more recently its report “The Invisibles: SA’s Underclass” — to show that beyond the graphs and pie charts are real people whose daily burdens are measurable indicators of a dignity deficit.

If their burdens are not automatically relieved by percentage point gains or rising indices, it is also true that there would be no hope of relief without them. Still, measurable macroeconomic performance is a precondition but not a guarantor of the dignity or “social justice” that might define a fair, stable and prospering society.

Counting is conceivably less of a problem here. Investment, jobs, economic activity and incomes remain indispensable. But clues to the missing ingredient necessary for dignity and respect are the key words in Lagardien’s definition of social justice: access, equity, rights, participation.

These cut to the heart of what he describes as “those things that citizens care most about”, placing the emphasis squarely on choices they are free to make, and opportunities they are free to exploit — a fundamental, dignifying, acknowledgment of their agency.

Far greater than the need to measure dignity is the need, alongside economic growth, to reshape policy to make individual freedom to act its primary objective.

• Morris is head of media at the Institute of Race Relations.

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