‘Happiness is a warm gun,’ Lennon sang. It was 1968, and the song was promptly banned by the BBC—the title suggested a sexual interpretation.

As soon as song lyrics expanded beyond she, me, love, do, and yeah, more complex explanations appeared for bizarre words that included glass onions and silver hammers.

For the warm gun tune, happiness was attributed to sex, heroin, and killing. It may have been none or all three, and you could perhaps throw in a touch of catholic repression, since mother superior jumped the gun.

Whatever it may be, happiness is undoubtedly the holy grail, and people have tried to measure and scale it for decades. It’s a very tough proposition, like scaling pain or love. More so, even, because arguably both pain and love are good candidates to include in an index of happiness, but are themselves incredibly complex.

Trust the Virgin, this souped up Fiat Panda recommends, based on experience (and humor) that hails back to the caravels.

Trust the Virgin, this souped up Fiat Panda recommends, based on experience (and humor) that hails back to the caravels.

And along with those come humor and envy, and simpler metrics such as health and wealth.

But is wealth simple?

Amália Rodrigues, the extraordinary Fado singer, sang a song called Casa Portuguesa, widely criticized after the Portuguese revolution for glorifying the happiness of the poor. But then Amália was said to be close to the  fallen dictatorship—my father once told me a story of her allegedly singing nude at a private party for some of Salazar’s ministers.

Fado was branded fascist music, which of course it never was—like the blues, to which it is often (correctly) compared, Fado is music from the streets and taverns of old time Lisbon, tinged with the rhythms and laments of Muslims and Jews, music of love, sadness, and betrayal, and always, always, always, of the mighty Atlantic.

Of course linking poverty and happiness is a time-honored game, wonderfully represented in the Anglican hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’, a creationist ode to the wonders of the earth.

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.

Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colours,
He made their tiny wings.

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

This is the version sung at a funeral service I attended last week, but in my quick webtrawl for the lyrics, I had to dig a little deep to find that naughty verse dealing with a divinely-appointed social order—most websites excised it.

The debate around happiness has spilled into national well-being, austerity, productivity, and GDP. A recent comment in Nature, entitled Time to Leave GDP behind, discusses GPI, the Global Progress Indicator.

GDP is typically calculated using expenditure, income, or production approaches. For instance, using expenditure, the following recipe applies:

GDP = C + I + G + \left ( X - M \right )

C is private consumption (your food bills, medical costs, etc), I is investment (e.g. when a business sets up a manufacturing plant), and G is government spending, the lynchpin of the austerity debate. The final two factors relate to the word ‘domestic’. To deal with that, we need to add exports (X) and subtract imports (M).

The Nature article highlights an interesting consequence of GDP: if a nation incurs in crisis expenditure, such as the rebuilding following hurricane Katrina, GDP is boosted.

In a similar fashion, higher medical costs improve GDP. Up to a point you can argue that more money spent on medical services means a healthier population—but persistent air pollution, such as you see (or in this case don’t see) in many Chinese cities, means an increase in GDP due to capital investment in factories, and spending on emphysema and other chronic lung conditions for local residents. More funerals also boost GDP.

In the best tradition of the law of unintended consequences, Kuznets, who proposed GDP in 1934, warned against its use as a measure of welfare, and then look what happened.

Alternative indicators are an excellent idea but they’ll meet a lot of resistance.

GPI isn’t a new approach, and the I in Indicator should really be Index, because the GPI combines lots of indicators. Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, an eminently presidential man, has implemented the GPI in his state—the leadership shown by the governor is new. I’ll be amazed if O’Malley doesn’t win the nomination in 2016.

In the Maryland method, three indicator classes are used: Economic, environmental, and social. This is right along the braintrack of People-Planet-Profit.

What’s the problem? Well, this vision means that goverments are drinking from the poisoned cup of sustainability, and countering the ‘principle’ of infinite growth—the expectation of positive economic growth ad nauseam is challenged by GPI, just as it’s challenged by thermodynamics—carrying capacity is an asymptote.

Why politicians don't like GPI - an alternative way of measuring US development since the 1960s.

Why politicians don’t like GPI – an alternative way of measuring US development since the 1960s.

This graph reveals the naked truth: true progress, using GPI as an indicator, has flatlined in the United States since the mid-1970s. But actually, that’s ok, because to the rest of the world, the USA was already a pretty good place to live in forty years ago. It didn’t necessarily need to be any better.

In the end, economics is just ecology for humans.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.


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