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Posts Tagged ‘well-being’

Should countries target GDP growth?

A key economic objective of governments around the world is economic growth, where economic growth is taken to mean growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This can be refined as growth in GDP per head or growth in Net National Income (NNY or NNI) – this takes account of depreciation and net flows of income to and from abroad. But is GDP (or NNY) an appropriate measure? There continues to be much debate about this and there is a lot of support for adopting an alternative measure – the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) as a target for economic policy.

GDP measures the market value of production and is the value added at each stage of production. If the value of a nation’s production is what you want to measure or target, then GDP is quite a good indicator. Its main drawbacks are that it uses market prices, which may be distorted, and that much of production in the informal sector is not included.

But if GDP growth is taken to be a proxy for development or growth in wellbeing of the residents of a country, then it has serious shortcomings. This is not to say that GDP gives no indication of progress. Generally, countries with higher GDP per head have a better standard of living, but it is not necessarily the case that, if Country A has higher production in the formal sector than Country B, its residents will be happier, more fulfilled and have fewer economic or other problems.

GDP, by focusing on production, ignores many environmental and social costs of that production. Valuable but not tradable resources, such as clean air, rivers and oceans, may be sacrificed for the sake of extra production and this is recorded as a gain in GDP.

Similarly, unless GDP is specifically weighted by income groups, which virtually never happens, it does not take into account income distribution. Much of the growth in production in both rich and poor countries in recent decades has gone to the richest people. Take the case of the USA. In 1944 the share of income going to the top 1% share was 11.3%, while the bottom 90% were receiving 67.5%. Such levels remained roughly constant for the next three decades. But then things began to change.

Starting in the mid- to late 1970s, the uppermost tier’s income share began rising dramatically, while that of the bottom 90% started to fall. The top 1% took heavy hits from the dot-com crash and the Great Recession but recovered fairly quickly: [preliminary estimates for 2012 by Emmanuel Saez] have that group receiving nearly 22.5% of all pre-tax income, while the bottom 90%’s share is below 50% for the first time ever (49.6%, to be precise).

So what does GPI measure and why may it be a better target for policy-makers than GDP or NNY? The answer is that it includes a number of important items that affect the well-being of a country, such as resource depletion, social activity and income distribution, that are not measured in GDP. So what would cause GPI to rise? According to The Guardian article below, examples would include:

Getting more energy from renewables; increased energy efficiency; reducing the income gap; putting more reliable, durable products on the market (have you heard of planned obsolescence?); volunteering more for your community; preserving wetlands, forests, and farmland; shorter commutes and transport routes. In fact, there are 26 ways the GPI can go up, all measured in dollars that boil down to a single number.

GPI is being increasingly adopted as a measure of progress. In the USA, it is officially used in Vermont and Maryland and is being considered in other states, such as Hawaii, Washington and Oregon.

And there are other alternatives. For example, since 1990, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has published an annual Human Development Index (HDI) As Box 27.1 in Economics, 8th edition states:

HDI is the average of three indices based on three sets of variables: (i) life expectancy at birth, (ii) education (a weighted average of (a) the mean years that a 25-year-old person or older has spent in school and (b) the number of years of schooling that a 5-year-old child is expected to have over their lifetime) and (iii) real GNY per capita, measured in US dollars at purchasing-power parity exchange rates.

The following articles look at the suitability of GDP and GPI and whether, by targeting growth in GDP, governments are guilty of downplaying the importance of other economic and social objectives.

Beyond GDP: US states have adopted genuine progress indicators The Guardian, Marta Ceroni (23/9/14)
Forget the GDP. Some States Have Found a Better Way to Measure Our Progress. New Republic, Lew Daly and Sean McElwee (3/2/14)
Gross domestic problem Aljazeera, Sean McElwee (6/6/14)
Creating the Circular Economy, Part II Environmental Leader, David Dornfeld (17/9/14)
Development: Time to leave GDP behind Nature, Robert Costanza, Ida Kubiszewski, Enrico Giovannini, Hunter Lovins, Jacqueline McGlade, Kate E. Pickett, Kristín Vala Ragnarsdóttir, Debra Roberts, Roberto De Vogli and Richard Wilkinson (15/1/14)
The Problems With Using GPI Rather Than GDP Forbes, Tim Worstall (5/6/14)


  1. What does GDP measure?
  2. Does GDP of a country equate to the turnover of a firm?
  3. If growth in NNY is superior to growth in GDP as a measure of economic growth, why are GDP figures more generally used than NNY figures when assessing a country’s economic performance?
  4. How suitable is using GDP as a measure of a nation’s production?
  5. What does GPI measure?
  6. Is GPI superior to GDP as a measure of a nation’s level of development? Explain why or why not.
  7. Give some examples of where a growth in GDP might correspond to a decline in economic well-being.
  8. For what reasons could GPI measures be described as subjective?
  9. Would it be a good idea for a country to target growth in GPI/GDP? Explain your answer.
  10. In addition to real GNY per capita, the Human Development Index includes measures of education and life expectancy. For what other social objectives might education and life expectancy be useful proxies?
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Cloudy skies ahead?

Now here’s a gloomy article from Robert Peston. He’s been looking at investors’ views about the coming years and sees a general pessimism about the prospects for long-term economic growth. And that pessimism is becoming deeper.

It is true that both the UK and the USA have recorded reasonable growth rates in recent months and do seem, at least on the surface, to be recovering from recession. But, according to investor behaviour, they:

seem to be saying, in how they place their money, that the UK’s and USA’s current reasonably rapid growth will turn out to be a short-lived period of catch-up, following the deep recession of 2008-9.

So what is it about investor behaviour that implies a deep pessimism and are investors right to be pessimistic? The article explores these issues. It does also look at an alternative explanation that investors may merely be being cautious until a clearer picture emerges about long-term growth prospects – which may turn out to be better that many currently now predict.

The article finishes by looking at a possible solution to the problem (if you regard low or zero growth as a problem). That would be for the government to ‘throw money at investment in infrastructure – to generate both short-term growth and enhance long-term productive potential.’

Note that Elizabeth also looks at this article in her blog The end of growth in the west?.

The end of growth in the West? BBC News, Robert Peston (26/9/14)


  1. What is meant by the ’25-year yield curve for government bonds’? Why does this yield curve imply a deep level of business pessimism about the long-term prospects for UK economic growth?
  2. What are the determinants of long-term economic growth?
  3. Looking at these determinants, which ones suggest that long-term economic growth may be low?
  4. Are there any determinants which might suggest that economic growth will be maintained over the long term at historical levels of around 2.6%?
  5. Do demand-side policies affect potential GDP and, if so, how?
  6. What policies could government pursue to increase the rate of growth in potential GDP?
  7. What current ‘dramas’ affecting the world economy could have long-term implications for economic growth? How does uncertainty about the long-term implications for the global economy of such dramas itself affect economic growth?
  8. Is long-term growth in real GDP an appropriate indicator of (a) economic development and (b) long-term growth in general well-being?
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Do GDP figures capture the benefits of internet innovation?

GDP figures are often a poor measure of a country’s economic well-being. By focusing on production, they may not capture the contribution of a range of social and environmental factors to people’s living standards, including the various negative and positive externalities from production and consumption themselves. A case in point is internet innovation: an issue considered in the first linked article below by the eminent economist, Joseph Stiglitz.

The effects of innovations that directly lead to an increase in output are relatively easy to measure. Many innovations, however, may allow those with power to consolidate that power, resulting in less competition and a possible decline in welfare. If, for example, companies such as Amazon, invest in online retailing and gain a first-mover advantage, they may be able to use this power to drive out competitors. In other words, innovations may not simply lower the cost of production and hence prices: they may even lead to an increase in prices.

Then there are innovations, such as faster broadband, that result in higher quality. While higher quality in one sphere may lead to higher output elsewhere, in many cases it is just improving the experience of consumers without being reflected in a way that can be easily measured.

Some innovations may be judged as socially harmful. Thus improved gaming functionality and realism may encourage people to spend more time online. The social and health implications of this may be considered as undesirable and resulting in a reduction in well-being. Of course, many gamers would disagree!

The point is that technological innovations often result in a change in tastes. These changes in tastes may involve negative externalities, themselves very hard to quantify. Consequently, resulting changes to GDP may be a very poor indicator of changes in social well-being.

The articles below consider some of these issues. The Stiglitz article gives an example of innovation in financial services. Although highly profitable for many working in the sector – at least until the crash of 2008/9 – according to the author, these innovations led to both lower GDP growth and a net contribution to social welfare that was negative.

The benefits of internet innovation are hard to spot in GDP statistics The Guardian, Joseph Stiglitz (10/3/14)
Economist argues for happiness over GDP Yale Daily News, Joyce Guo (19/2/14)
‘GDP: A Brief But Affectionate History’ by Diane Coyle and ‘The Leading Indicators: A Short History of the Numbers That Rule Our World’ by Zachary Karabell Washington Post, Tyler Cowen (21/2/14)
Emerging Markets: Income Returns To Innovation (GDP Per Capita Vs. Innovation Index) Seeking Alphz, Jon Harrison (4/3/14)


  1. What does GDP measure?
  2. What factors affecting the welfare of society are not measured in GDP?
  3. What alternative indicators are there to GDP as a measure of living standards?
  4. How would you set about measuring the effects on living standards of a technological revolution, such as the ability to access 4G on the move on laptops and smartphones (e.g. on trains)?
  5. How should the net benefits of installing more ATMs (cash machines) be calculated?
  6. Revisit the blog Time to leave GDP behind? and answer question 8.
  7. Referring to the Jon Harrison article, how would you construct an innovation index? How is innovation related too GDP per capita?
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Time to leave GDP behind?

GDP is still the most frequently used indicator of a country’s development. When governments target economic growth as a key goal, it is growth in GDP to which they are referring. And they often make the assumption that growth in GDP is a proxy for growth in well-being. But is it time to leave GDP behind as the main indicator of national economic success? This is the question posed in the first of the linked articles below, from the prestigious science journal Nature.

As the article states:

Robert F. Kennedy once said that a country’s gross domestic product (GDP) measures “everything except that which makes life worthwhile”. The metric was developed in the 1930s and 1940s amid the upheaval of the Great Depression and global war. Even before the United Nations began requiring countries to collect data to report national GDP, Simon Kuznets, the metric’s chief architect, had warned against equating its growth with well-being.

GDP measures mainly market transactions. It ignores social costs, environmental impacts and income inequality. If a business used GDP-style accounting, it would aim to maximize gross revenue — even at the expense of profitability, efficiency, sustainability or flexibility. That is hardly smart or sustainable (think Enron). Yet since the end of the Second World War, promoting GDP growth has remained the primary national policy goal in almost every country

So what could replace GDP, or be considered alongside GDP? Should we try to measure happiness? After all, behavioural scientists are getting much better at understanding and measuring the psychology of human well-being (see the blog posts Money can’t buy me love and Happiness economics).

Or should we focus primarily on long-term issues of the sustainability of development? Or should we focus more on the distribution of income or well-being in a world that is becoming increasingly unequal?

Or should measures of well-being involve weighted composite indices involving things such as life-expectancy, education, housing, democratic engagement, leisure time, social mobility, etc. And, if so, how should the weightings of the different indicators be determined? The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) produces annual Human Development Reports, where countries are ranked according to a Human Development Index. As the UNDP site states:

The breakthrough for the HDI was the creation of a single statistic which was to serve as a frame of reference for both social and economic development. The HDI sets a minimum and a maximum for each dimension, called goalposts, and then shows where each country stands in relation to these goalposts, expressed as a value between 0 and 1.

HDI is a composite of three sets of indicators: education, life expectancy and income (see). The UNDP since 2010 has also produced an Inequality-adjusted HDI (IHDI).

The IHDI will be equal to the HDI value when there is no inequality, but falls below the HDI value as inequality rises. The difference between the HDI and the IHDI represents the ‘loss’ in potential human development due to inequality and can be expressed as a percentage.

You can now build your own HDI for each country on the UNDP site by selecting from the following indicators: health, education, income, inequality, poverty and gender.

The Nature article considers a number of measures of progress and considers their relative merits. The other articles also look at measuring national progress and well-being and at the relationship between income per head and happiness. It is clear that focusing on GDP alone provides too simplistic an approach to measuring development.

Development: Time to leave GDP behind Nature, Robert Costanza, Ida Kubiszewski, Enrico Giovannini, Hunter Lovins, Jacqueline McGlade, Kate E. Pickett, Kristín Vala Ragnarsdóttir, Debra Roberts, Roberto De Vogli and Richard Wilkinson (15/1/14)
The happiness agenda makes for miserable policy The Conversation, Daniel Sage (9/1/14)
Economic view: No matter what the politicians say, GDP is a distorted guide to economic performance and a bad way to measure prosperity Independent, Guy Hands (28/1/14)
Buy buy love The Economist (22/6/13)
Experts confirm that money does buy happiness – but only up to £22,100 Independent, Jamie Merrill (28/11/13)
Can Money Buy Happiness? Scientific American, Sonja Lyubomirsky (10/8/10)
Money can buy happiness The Economist (2/5/13)
Money can buy happiness Hacker News, pyduan (13/1/14)
Can ‘happiness economics’ provide a new framework for development? The Guardian, Christian Kroll (3/9/13)
The 10 Things Economics Can Tell Us About Happiness The Atlantic, Derek Thompson (31/5/12)
Financial crisis hits happiness levels BBC News (3/11/13)
Happiness study finds that UK is passing point of peak life satisfaction The Guardian, Larry Elliott (27/11/13)
How GDP became the figure everyone wanted to watch BBC News, Peter Day (16/4/14)
Economic development can only buy happiness up to a ‘sweet spot’ of $36,000 GDP per person Science Daily (27/11/13)


  1. What does GDP measure?
  2. How suitable a measure of economic progress is growth in GDP?
  3. How can GDP be adjusted to make it a more suitable measure of economic progress?
  4. What are the advantages of using composite indicators of well-being?
  5. What difficulties are there in measuring well-being using composite indicators?
  6. Assuming there were no measurement problems, what indicators would you include in devising the optimum composite indicator of well-being?
  7. Can money buy happiness?
  8. Why do life satisfaction levels peak at around $36,000 (adjusted for Purchasing Power Parity (PPP))?
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Money can’t buy me love

Australia is a rich country. It is one of the few to have avoided a recession. This has been the result partly of successful macroeconomic policies, but largely of the huge mining boom, with Australia exporting minerals to China and other fast growing Asian economies.

But has this growth brought happiness? Are Australians having to work harder and harder to pay for their high standard of living? Indeed, do higher incomes generally result in greater happiness? The following articles explore this issue, both in an Australian context and more broadly. They look at some recent evidence.

For example, in one study, Canadian, Chinese, Indian, and Japanese university students were asked what they held to be most important for assessing the worth of their lives. The crucial finding was that although higher incomes may be a contributing factor to increased happiness and well-being, especially for poorer people, other factors are more important. These include developing fulfilling personal relationships, whether with partners, family members or friends; gaining knowledge and wisdom; having enjoyable hobbies; having financial security (as opposed to higher incomes); having a worthwhile career; living a moral life; helping other people.

The question then arises whether our economic systems and incentives are geared towards achieving these outcomes. Or are we encouraged to consume more and more and to seek higher and higher incomes to feed our addiction to consumption?

Is there an information problem here? Do many individuals perceive that money will buy them happiness, whereas, in reality, money can’t buy them love?

Australia: Where the good life comes at a price BBC News Magazine, Madeleine Morris (24/2/13)
Australia has the know-how to boost wellbeing Sydney Morning Herald, Matt Wade (8/9/12)
Money can’t buy you the good life Independent, Roger Dobson (24/2/13)
The 10 Things Economics Can Tell Us About Happiness The Atlantic, Derek Thompson (31/5/12)
Yes, Money Does Buy Happiness: 6 Lessons from the Newest Research on Income and Well-Being The Atlantic, Derek Thompson (10/1/13)
The fact is, the richer you are, the happier you are The Telegraph, Allister Heath (5/2/13)
Money buys happiness? I wouldn’t bank on it The Telegraph, Christopher Howse (6/2/13)
Who Says Wealth Doesn’t Buy Happiness? The Wealthy Do CNBC, Robert Frank (4/2/13)
More Proof That Money Can’t Buy Happiness Business Insider, Aimee Groth (28/1/13)
Money Changes Everything The New York Times, Adam Davidson (5/2/13)
Why are the Chinese so sad? Maclean’s (Canada), Mitch Moxley (4/2/13)

First World Happiness Report Launched at the United Nations The Earth Institute, Columbia University (2/4/12)
World Happiness Report The Earth Institute, Columbia University, John Helliwell, Richard Layard and Jeffrey Sachs (eds.) (2/4/12)
Well-being evidence for policy: A review New Economics Foundation, Laura Stoll, Juliet Michaelson and Charles Seaford (3/4/12)


  1. Distinguish between necessary and sufficient conditions. Is higher income a necessary or sufficient condition (or both or neither) for an increase in happiness? Does a person’s circumstances affect the answer to this question?
  2. Explain what is meant by ‘rational behaviour’ at the margin in the traditional economic sense?
  3. If a person always behaved rationally, would they be happier than if they did not? Explain.
  4. Explain how information asymmetry between the two or more parties involved in a transaction may make people worse off, rather than better off, even though they were behaving rationally.
  5. Explain what is meant by diminishing returns to income.
  6. Do richer countries get happier as they get richer?
  7. How would you set about measuring happiness?
  8. What do you understand by the term ‘hedonic elevation and decline’? Does this provide an accurate description of you own purchasing behaviour? If so, explain whether or not you would like to change this behaviour.
  9. When people make economic decisions, these are normally made with bounded rationality. How may this affect the desirability of the outcomes of the decisions?
  10. In explaining bankers’ behaviour, Christopher Howse (author of the second Telegraph article above) states: ‘It’s the power game that keeps them happy, not the money itself. When I say “keeps them happy” I mean “feeds their addiction”. It is a negative kind of satisfaction. A morning spent without the distraction of making big bucks is a morning left exposed to the empty horror of being a little rational animal on the bare surface of the Earth lost in space.’ Do you agree? Explain why or why not.
  11. When people are addicted to something, would doing more of it be classed as irrational? Explain.
  12. Why are the Chinese so sad?
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A measure of well-being

Although every recession is different (for example in terms of length and magnitude), they do tend to have a few things in common. The focus of this blog is on consumer income and how it is affected in the aftermath of (or even during) a recession. According to data from the ONS, real national income per head has fallen by more than 13% since the start of 2008.

This latest data from the Office of National Statistics shows that in the aftermath of the 2008 recession, UK incomes have fallen by much more than they did in the 2 previous recessions experienced in the UK (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart). We would normally expect consumer incomes to fall during and possibly directly after a recession, as national output falls and confidence tends to be and remain low. However, the crucial thing to consider with falling consumer incomes is how it affects purchasing power. If my income is cut by 50%, but prices fall by 80%, then I’m actually better off in terms of my purchasing power.

The data from the ONS is all about purchasing power and shows how UK consumer incomes have fallen at the same time as inflation having been relatively high. It is the combination of these two variables that has been ‘eating into the value of the cash that people were earning’. Comparing the incomes in the four years after the 2008 recession with similar periods following the early 1980s and 1990s recession, the ONS has shown that this most recent recession had a much larger effect on consumer well-being. Part of this may be due to the rapid growth in incomes prior to the start of the credit crunch.

It’s not just the working population that has seen their incomes fall since 2008 – the retired population has also seen a decline in income and according to a report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, it is the wealthiest portion of older households that have taken the largest hit since 2007. According to the IFS, the average person over 50 has experienced a fall in their gross wealth of about 10%, or close to £60,000. Of course for these older households, the concern is whether they will be able to make up this lost wealth before they retire. The concern for everyone is how long until incomes and purchasing power increase back to pre-crisis levels. The following articles consider this latest data on economic well-being and the impact the recession has had.

UK wellbeing still below financial crisis levels Guardian, Larry Elliott and Randeep Ramesh (23/10/12)
National income per head ‘down 13% in four years’ BBC Newsd (23/10/12)
Financial crisis hits UK retirement income Financial Times, Norma Cohen (23/10/12)
Over 50s ‘left £160,000 out of pocket by the financial crisis’ The Telegraph, James Kirkup (23/10/12)
Those near retirement in UK hit hard by crisis Wall Street Journal, Paul Hannon (23/10/12)
Living standards down 13pc since start of recession The Telegraph (23/10/12)


  1. Why is net national income per head said to be the best measure of economic well-being?
  2. Why is it so important to take into account inflation when measuring wellbeing?
  3. What explanation can be given for the larger fall in consumer incomes following the 2008 recession relative to the previous 2 recessions?
  4. According to data from the IFS, the richest portion of older households have suffered the most in terms of lost wealth. Why is this the case?
  5. What is meant by purchasing power?
  6. GDP has fallen by about 7%, whereas national income per head, taking inflation into account is down by over 13%. What is the explanation for these 2 different figures?
  7. How can recessions differ from each other? Think about the length, the magnitude of each.
  8. Is GDP a good measure of economic well-being? Are there any other ways we can measure it?
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Happiness economics

Economics studies scarcity and the allocation of resources. Central to societies’ economic objectives is the reduction in scarcity and central to that is economic growth. Certainly, economic growth is a major objective of all governments. They know that they will be judged by their record on economic growth.

But what do we mean by economic growth? The normal measure is growth in GDP. But does GDP measure how much a society benefits? Many people argue that GDP is a poor proxy for social benefit and that a new method of establishing the level of human well-being and happiness is necessary

And it’s not just at macro level. As we saw in a previous news article, A new felicific calculus? happiness and unhappiness are central to economists’ analysis of consumer behaviour. If we define ‘utility’ as perceived happiness, standard consumer theory assumes that rational people will seek to maximise the excess of happiness over the costs of achieving it: i.e. will seek to maximise consumer surplus.

There have been three recent developments in the measurement of happiness. ‘Understanding Society’ is a £48.9m government-funded UK study following 40,000 households and is run by the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Essex. It has just published its first findings (see link below).

The second development is the work by the ONS on developing new measures of national well-being and includes a questionnaire asking about the things that matter to people and which should be included in a measure or measures of national well-being.

The third development will be an addition of five new questions to the Integrated Household Survey:

• Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?
• Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?
• Overall, how anxious did you feel yesterday?
• Overall, to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?

But after all this, will we be any closer to getting a correct measure of human well-being? Will the results of such investigations help governments devise policy? Will the government be closer to measuring the costs and benefits of any policy decisions?

Married for less than five years, young, childless: survey finds that’s happiness Guardian, David Sharrock (27/2/11)
The UK’s largest household longitudinal study launches its early findings EurekAlert (28/2/11)
Happiness Studied in Britain MeD India (1/3/11)
Statisticians to tackle ticklish issue of happiness Financial Times (24/2/11)
Survey to ask ‘How happy are you?’ BBC News (24/2/11)
ONS happiness questions revealed The Telegraph, Tim Ross (24/2/11)
What makes us happy? The Telegraph (7/3/11)
Bhutan’s ‘Gross National Happiness’ index The Telegraph, Dean Nelson (2/3/11)
Bhutan’s experiment with happiness The Third Pole (China), Dipika Chhetri (25/2/11)
Gross National Happiness: The 10 Principles The Huffington Post (China), Nancy Chuda (24/2/11)
You’re asking me if I’m happy? What kind of a question is that? Independent, Natalie Haynes (26/2/11)
Happiness = Work, sleep and bicycles BBC News blogs, Mark Easton’s UK, Mark Easton (25/2/11)
The Future of Consumption and Economic Growth Minyanville, Professor Pinch and Conor Sen (14/2/11)
Happiness: A measure of cheer Financial Times (27/12/10)

ONS site
Well-being: Measuring national well-being ONS
Consultation: Measuring national well-being ONS
Consultation: Measuring national well-being: the questions ONS
The measurement of subjective well-being ONS, Stephen Hicks (4/2/11)
Integrated Household Survey ONS

Understanding Society site
Early findings from the first wave of the UK’s household longitudinal study Understanding Society, Jon Burton, Heather Laurie and Peter Lynn Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex


  1. For what reasons might GDP be a poor measure of human well-being?
  2. How suitable is a survey of individuals for establishing the nation’s happiness?
  3. How suitable are each of the four specific questions above for measuring a person’s well-being?
  4. Why, do you think, has average life satisfaction not increased over the past 30 years despite a substantial increase in GDP per head?
  5. Give some examples of ways in which national well-being could increase for any given level of GDP. Explain why they would increase well-being.
  6. Should other countries follow Bhutan’s example and use a ‘groass national happiness index’ to drive economic and social policy?
  7. If human well-being could be accurately measured, should that be the sole driver of economic and social policy?
  8. Do people’s spending patterns give a good indication of the things that give them happiness?
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A new felicific calculus?

Happiness and unhappiness are central to economists’ analysis of consumer behaviour. If we define ‘utility’ as perceived happiness, standard consumer theory assumes that rational people will seek to maximise the excess of happiness over the costs of achieving it: i.e. will seek to maximise consumer surplus. In fact, this analysis can be traced back to the work of the utilitarians, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Bentham reffered to it as hedonic or felicific calculus (see also and also).

Now, of course, whether people actually behave in this way is an empirical question: one that behavioural and experimental economists have been investigating over a number of years. Nevertheless, it remains central to neoclassical analysis of ‘rational behaviour’.

But if happiness is central to a large part of economic analysis, how is happiness to be measured? At a micro level, this has proved problematic as it is virtually impossible to have inter-personal comparisons of utility. As a result, consumer theory uses indifference analysis, characteristics analysis, revealed preference and other approaches to analyse consumer demand.

But what about at the macro level? How is a nation’s happiness or well-being to be measured? There is general acceptance that GDP is a relatively poor proxy for national well-being and is more a measure of production. There have been various indices developed over the years (see, for example, Box 14.7 on ISEW in Economics, 7th edition) as alternatives to GDP. None has been adopted by governments, however, with the exception of a Gross National Happiness index in Bhutan.

Recently, however, there has been renewed interest in developing an index of well-being. In France, President Sarkozy commissioned two Nobel economists, Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, to examine the issues in developing such a measure. In the light of the Stiglitz/Sen report, David Cameron has asked the Office of National Statistics to measure the UK’s general well-being. The articles below look at the difficulties that could arise in producing an index of well-being, of meauring the elements and in using it for policy.

UK Prime Minister Cameron Moves on UK Happiness Index Triple Pundit, Kristina Robinson (17/11/10)
David Cameron’s happiness index finds support despite impending decade of austerity Daily Record, Magnus Gardham (16/11/10)
How can we measure happiness? Telegraph, Philip Johnston (16/11/10)
David Cameron aims to make happiness the new GDP Guardian, Allegra Stratton (14/11/10)
An unhappiness index is more David Cameron’s style Guardian, Polly Toynbee (16/11/10)
Happiness is a warm baguette? The Economist (13/1/08)
‘Stiglitz-Sen Moving in the Right Direction, but Slowly’ IPS, Hazel Henderson (18/9/09)
The Rise and Fall of the G.D.P. New York Times Magazine (13/5/10)
Happiness doesn’t increase with growing wealth of nations, finds study Guardian, Alok Jha (13/12/10)
Should governments pursue happiness rather than economic growth? The Economist (25/11/10)
M&S’s Sir Stuart Rose among UK’s expert happiness panel BBC News (27/1/11)

The Stiglitz/Sen/Fitoussi report
Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, Jean-Paul Fitoussi (September 2009)


  1. What are the shortcomings of using GDP as a measure of a nation’s well-being?
  2. Summarise the main findings of the Stiglitz/Sen/Fetoussi report.
  3. What items would be included in a happiness or well-being index that (a) are not included in GDP; (b) not included in Stiglitz and Sen’s proposed net national product measure? How would such an index be compiled?
  4. Would it be satisfactory to compile such an index purely on the basis of survey evidence? Why might such evidence prove unreliable?
  5. What are the political advantages and disadvantages of using such an index?
  6. Is utilitarianism the best basis for judging the progress of society?
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The poverty of riches

The happiness literature has established that, in the developed countries, increasing affluence has not increased well-being in recent decades. We seek an explanation for this in terms of conspicuous consumption, a phenomenon originally identified by Veblen.

This is from the abstract of an article in the Economic Journal, ‘Well-being and Affluence in the Presence of a Veblen Good’ by B. Curtis Eaton and Mukesh Eswaran. The authors argue that while increased affluence of the rich may bring a small amount of extra benefit to them, it actually reduces the well-being of others who crave after things that they cannot afford. As the first article below states:

[The authors] believe their work shows that as a nation becomes wealthier, consumption shifts increasingly to buying status symbols with no intrinsic value – such as lavish jewellery, designer clothes and luxury cars. But they warn: “These goods represent a ‘zero-sum game’ for society: they satisfy the owners, making them appear wealthy, but everyone else is left feeling worse off.”

… There is another downside. As people yearn for more status symbols they have less time or inclination for helping others. This, the authors argue, damages “community and trust”, which are vital to an economy because they ensure the smooth running of society.

But do the super wealthy generate more jobs and more prosperity? Do we need to pay vast salaries and bonuses as incentives for executives to take risks: to invest in new products and processes, and drive technological advance and productivity increases? According to the second article, ‘Too few of the world’s billionaires can claim to be honest-to-God productive entrepreneurs who have enlarged the economic pie by dint of hard work, imagination, risk taking and innovation – although thankfully a useful proportion do populate the list.’

So is the ever widening gap between rich and poor necessary if the economy is to grow? Or is it something of very little value to society, except, perhaps, for the super rich themselves?

More money makes society miserable, warns report The Observer, Jamie Doward (14/3/10)
Don’t celebrate these billionaires, be horrified by their existence The Observer, Will Hutton (14/3/10)

For the latest Guardian survey of executive pay, see: Executive pay survey, 2009
For data on UK incomes and income distribution, see: Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE) Office for National Statistics
For data on the distribution of wealth in the UK, see Distribution of Personal Wealth HM Revenue and Customs


  1. Explain what is meant by a ‘Veblen good’.
  2. What is meant by the diminishing marginal utility of income? What implications does this have for the effects of income distribution and redistribution on social well-being?
  3. Why may a rise in GDP make society worse off if it is accompanied by growing inequality?
  4. To what extent can marginal productivity theory explain the salaries and other rewards of the wealthy?
  5. Using the data below, examine the extent to which the gap between rich and poor is growing.
  6. Explain why increasing conspicuous consumption by the wealthy might be a zero-sum game for society or even a negative-sum game.
  7. What factors cause a rise in productivity?
  8. How might greater entrepreneurship be encouraged in the UK?
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Measuring the Earth

The health of an economy is generally measured in terms of the growth rate in GDP. A healthy economy is portrayed as one that is growing. Declining GDP, by contrast, is seen as a sign of economic malaise; not surprisingly, people don’t want rising unemployment and falling consumption. The recession of 2008/9 has generally been seen as bad news.

But is GDP a good indicator of human well-being? The problem is that GDP measures the production of goods and services for exchange. True, such goods and services are a vital ingredient in determining human well-being. But they are not the only one. Our lives are not just about consumption. What is more, many of our objectives may go beyond human well-being. For example, the state of the environment – the flora and fauna and the planet itself.

Then there is the question of the capital required to produce goods and maintain a healthy and sustainable environment. Capital production is included in GDP and the depreciation of capital is deducted from GDP to arrive at a net measure. But again, things are left out of these calculations. We include manufactured capital, such as factories and machinery, but ignore natural capital, such as rain forests, coral reefs and sustainable ecosystems generally. But the state of the natural environment has a crucial impact on the well-being, not only of the current generation, but of future generations too.

In the video podcast below, Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta, from the Faculty of Economics at the University of Cambridge and also from the University of Manchester, argues that the well-being of future generations requires an increase in the stock of capital per head, and that, in measuring this capital stock, we must take into account natural capital. In the paper to which the podcast refers, he argues “that a country’s comprehensive wealth per capita can decline even while gross domestic product (GDP) per capita increases and the UN Human Development Index records an improvement.”

Nature’s role in sustaining economic development (video podcast) The Royal Society, Partha Dasgupta
Nature’s role in sustaining economic development Philisophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, vol 365, no. 1537, pp 5–11, Partha Dasgupta (12/1/10)
GDP is misleading measure of wealth, says top economist University of Manchester news item (21/12/09)
Economics and the environment: Down to earth index Guardian (28/12/09)


  1. Why might a rise in GDP result in a decline in human well-being?
  2. In what sense is nature ‘over exploited’?
  3. What is meant by ‘comprehensive wealth’ and why might comprehensive wealth per capita decline even though the stocks of both manufactured capital and human capital are increasing?
  4. What is meant by ‘shadow prices’ in the context of natural capital?
  5. How might economists go about measuring the shadow prices of capital?
  6. What factors should determine the rate of discount chosen for projects that impact on the future state of the environment?
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