A New Set of Tools for Measuring Economic Progress

Maryland’s government is embracing an alternative way to monitor the state’s wellbeing called the Genuine Progress Indicator, which brings depth to the analysis of the state’s economic growth. At the Institute for Policy Studies, we are looking for lessons in Maryland, as well as in similar exercises being undertaken elsewhere. This is the second in a series of posts about this work. This was the first one. A longer version is running as an op-ed via the Institute’s OtherWords editorial service.

More than 70 years after its emergence, the desirability of GDP growth is so entrenched in our national and international discourse that it’s hard to imagine it any other way. The revered indicator’s expansion or contraction can swing national elections. Conversely, talk of GDP declines can drive a country to war.

During tough economic times such as these, it’s particularly surprising to have a leader bucking the tide. Yet Martin O’Malley is doing just that. Maryland’s governor is the first in the United States to embrace a set of alternative indicators that bring depth to the analysis of his state’s economic growth. Under O’Malley’s leadership, the state’s officials are now gathering and annually updating economic, social, and environmental data that help measure the overall wellbeing of Maryland’s citizens.

The 26 underlying indicators, which collectively comprise the “Genuine Progress Indicator,” are a more meaningful gauge of the overall economic health and wellbeing of Maryland residents than standard economic measuring sticks. For example, the state tracks things like volunteerism, time spent with family and loved ones, and air quality in its quest to gauge its real progress. These indicators may lack concrete economic value, but studies show they help make a society more healthy and vibrant.

GPI assesses what’s left behind when the “gross product” expands. Is the landscape more or less toxic than before? Is the air and water cleaner or dirtier? How well-educated is the populace? Is public transportation decent? Is crime more common? Are too many people spending more time commuting to jobs than at home with their kids?

Maryland leads the nation in measuring overall societal wellbeing through the GPI, but there are similar efforts underway elsewhere in the United States, as well as in Canada, France, and even Bhutan. Yes, Bhutan, a tiny country nestled in the Himalayan mountains. There, “gross domestic happiness” carries more weight than the gross domestic product.

It’s time to recall Simon Kuznets’ warnings about the limitations of the GDP and to pick up where he left off by embracing a new set of tools that will help shape good social, environmental, and economic policy — not just for Maryland, but for our entire country and the world.

Daphne Wysham is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, where she’s conducting research around ways in which alternative metrics to the GDP, such as Maryland’s “Genuine Progress Indicator,” can be used to build a more sustainable society. www.ips-dc.org