Measuring Quality of Life

GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is convenient for economists and politicians, but it misleads us into thinking an increase in GDP makes us better off. More guns, worse natural disasters, and private prisons add to GDP, but show us that not every contribution to GDP improves our lives.

Measures of the improvement in the quality of our lives is vastly more important. Unfortunately, GDP is easier to measure, so that’s what we look at. As any laid-off or underpaid worker can tell you, the quality of life for everyone but the richest few has been stagnant or declining for decades in spite of rocketing GDP. The desperation of these workers is why Donald Trump’s lies about how he was going to make everything better convinced them.

Every demagogue knows he must tell his followers that they have an enemy who is to blame for all their miseries. Hitler blamed the Jews, and Trump blamed Democrats, especially Hillary Clinton. Those elite, pointy-headed, out-of-touch ivory tower intellectuals who never worked a day in their lives and don’t know what the real world is like. Liars. Criminals.

We don’t have a good, simple measure of the quality of life yet, but we do know that it does not lie in the realm of “stuff”. We already have too much stuff, and the addition of an 80-inch TV will not improve our quality of life.

Actually, it’s relatively easy in modern nations to have high quality of life. Why do we not have it? We do not have high quality of life because the very rich and corporate powers have given far too much wealth to themselves and to Congress. Members of Congress are all given fabulous amounts of money in the expectation that it will earn access for lobbyists to convince Congress to vote in ways that favor these interests. It works. Congress again and again votes for bills that make the rich richer and the rest of us less well off. We cannot, for example, use leverage to obtain better prices for medicines because Big Pharma paid Congress to pass a bill that says we can’t. So we are forced to subsidize a multi-million dollar bonus for a Big Pharma CEO when we buy our grossly overpriced meds.

Wealth is finite. If it goes to the very wealthy it cannot go elsewhere. The wealthy do not use it to build factories and provide jobs. They merely invest it for themselves, taking it out of circulation, where it would improve the quality of our lives.

Health care is one of the most important elements of quality of life.

Congress, almost entirely because of the Republican position, has never given serious study to one of the most important ways to improve the quality of life: national health care. We are literally the only modern nation without national health care, and it shows. Our health as a nation is much worse than virtually any other modern nation, in spite of the fact that we pay literally double what others pay. This doesn’t bother the wealthy because they can easily buy top quality medical care. The poor who can’t get treatment just die.

A large part of this tragedy is because a quarter of our health care bill goes to private insurers, who provide absolutely no health care at all. Another big chunk goes down the drain because we can’t readily control the price of what we pay for medical care or medications. Countries with national care have neither of these major problems. We still have this antiquated system largely because Republicans have a pathological aversion to anything they think is “socialism”, which they apparently equate with Stalinist communism. They stick to this story because they are beholden to moneyed interests that get them re-elected.

Are we entitled to health care? Yes, we are.

Consider the case of one of the most important medical advances in recent centuries, penicillin. Penicillin and its later offspring has cured diseases that in the past claimed millions of lives. Penicillin greatly improved our quality of life. It also earned truckloads of money for those who manufactured it, but that money did not improve our quality of life.

I maintain that we are all entitled to penicillin if we need it, and it would be amoral to withhold this lifesaver from anyone, even if they are penniless. The same holds true even for expensive medical treatment. Half a million families every year are bankrupted after selling everything they own to pay for an expensive medical treatment. This creates a net negative effect for the whole country, because each of these families is thrust into worse quality of life. The children may have to give up college plans, so the effect lasts more than a generation. This national disaster happens only in the US, the only country without national health care.

Inexplicably, Republicans waste endless hours trying to preserve unearned wealth yet make health care affordable. They cannot understand that the biggest insurance pool is the most efficient, that the private health care insurance industry is completely useless, and that the cost of medical procedures and medicines can easily be managed by national boards. We are the only modern nation in the world that hasn’t figured this out.

Health care is not rocket science, it’s simple arithmetic.

What Paul Krugman Doesn’t Talk About

I follow Krugman religiously. What he says, as a professional economist, as a Nobel winner, makes perfect sense to me, a somewhat well-read amateur. And again and again what he predicts turns out to be true. But Krugman is still a mainstream economist. He doesn’t deal with the signal issue of our time: life for seven-billion-and-counting people in a finite world.

In terms of economics, the unalterable finiteness of our world raises two profound questions: How can we efficiently use money as we come up against the impossibility of infinite “growth”? How can we best deal with the cost of keeping our fine little planet a habitable place for humans?

Capitalism has certain inherent rules that must be observed. Among those is the idea that capital must “work”. It must grow, produce profit, forever. But we have already reached a point where simply making it grow does not serve us, and infinite growth in a finite world is not possible.

Capital must grow, produce profit, forever.

The large international banking institutions found themselves awash in cash, and the capitalist imperative said it must be invested to grow. So for decades it was invested in the Third World. These countries were encouraged to take on major debt, and to “restructure” their economy to make it more modern. What they ended up with was a disastrous decline of welfare for ordinary citizens, unpayable debt, and huge capital projects they neither needed nor wanted. Dams are the classical boondoggle project. They most commonly displaced a lot of people, and provided neither water nor electricity to the people, nor money to the government. Instead, the benefits went to huge corporations in the first world, or military dictators and their henchmen. After decades of this false economy, Latin American nations got wise, and largely put a complete stop to such neoliberal meddling across the board. Things began to improve when they started doing their own thinking.

Although it’s an article of religious faith among Republicans that global climate change isn’t really happening, no such magical thinking occurs in the rest of the world. Whether Republicans believe it or not is irrelevant anyway, because it is happening in our daily world no matter what they think. But the real problem is that Republicans have completely prevented not only our country, but by extension the whole world, from even formulating a working plan to deal with the changing climate in all of its manifestations. Corporate powers go right along with this denial, thinking it will save them money, and since they are responsible for a significant part of the planetary degradation, worldwide conditions continue to deteriorate. For example, we are now sending millions of tons of coal to China, where air pollution from coal has been a serious problem for a long time. We delude ourselves by believing pollution in China won’t affect us, to say nothing of the immorality of selling atmospheric poison to them for profit. Meantime, the costs continue to escalate.

We as a nation have utterly failed to address global climate change, which is without question the most significant issue humans have ever had to deal with. After great change has occurred, requiring such things as relocating several hundred million people, or finding new food sources for hundreds of millions, will be much too late. In fact, many people, I among them, believe it is already too late, that the world’s fate is largely out of our hands now. Even so, we must do our best to minimize the suffering. But we’re essentially doing nothing.

The impossibility of infinite growth affects many other areas as well, of course. Population, fresh water, food production, energy sources, resource depletion, species extinction…all the things that have already made their presence known.

There is something else, something relatively small, that tends to give us a false sense of security. That is our failure to adopt a more realistic metric than the Gross Domestic Product to measure our economic progress.

What’s wrong with the GDP is that it puts the expensive devastation from hurricane Katrina in the same category as a bumper food crop. The budget-crushing cost of decades-long wars in the Middle East contribute the same as record employment. Record numbers of people in prison is equivalent to a productive year in automotive sales. The problem, of course, is that the cost of Katrina, the wars, and record imprisonments—and many, many other things—reduce our national wellbeing. They make us worse off, yet the GDP counts these huge costs as great benefits to the economy.

There have been a half dozen designs for new measures that provide a more realistic calculation of how well we are doing than the GDP provides. The Genuine Progress Indicator is the best, in my opinion. The GPI realistically deducts figures for crime and pollution and many other things that are counted as positive in the GDP. A glance at this chart comparing GDP with GPI since 1950 makes clear what we all feel: things are getting worse.

Yet neither the GPI nor any other measurement other than the fatally flawed GDP makes an appearance in our economic figuring, not by Krugman nor by anyone else. We could even use simple halfway measures like this one, but we don’t. And the result is that we grossly overestimate how well we are doing. We’re doing much worse than we think we are.