Two Lane Special: Measuring What Matters

Progress is all about priorities. And measuring these areas that really matter is key. But, what actually does matter? Generally, these are the things that make life worth living. So, it can be income, health, relationships, education, etc. The worldwide measure for economic growth of countries is Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and has been the most powerful measure of progress for decades. However, this measure is really struggling to stay relevant. For one reason, the indicator was fashioned up in the 1950s when the economy was much simpler.

Even if GDP was good enough to measure an economy of a country, is that the only thing to measure ourselves against in 2018? Perhaps we need an official measure that is considering the other things that matter like health and education. When measurement frameworks are being conceived of, the gold is in measuring what people want. We are in a democracy so we need to measure what matters to citizens. I think that economic growth matters but I also think I would like the U.S. to place a lot more emphasis on health, education, the environment and equality right now.

While there has been a lot of momentum over the last 10 years to move a “Beyond GDP” agenda forward, it is still on an uphill battle. There are plenty of indices of well-being around. The data is being collected. Three of the big indices are the Social Progress index, the Better Life Index and the Human Development Index. However, these are still not taken as seriously as GDP. We are in an era where data can be collected, visualized, communicated and shared with everyone. I think that we can’t be lazy and hope that our high level GDP status is going help us to improve the quality of life of all citizens. It isn’t. According to a recent article by economist Joe Stiglitz,

“GDP is not a good measure of wellbeing. What we measure affects what we do, and if we measure the wrong thing, we will do the wrong thing. If we focus only on material wellbeing – on, say, the production of goods, rather than on health, education, and the environment – we become distorted in the same way that these measures are distorted…

So, what is hindering us from prioritizing, measuring and communicating properly?

Facing the music

One of the problems is that once we start measuring ourselves, it means that we will be forced to see things that we don’t want to see all the time. Like, the U.S. is #1 in GDP but #49 in gender equality (World Economic Forum) and #13 in human development (UN). But, once people are armed with this information and faced with it each day, then we will be better able to manage the problems. And when I say “we” I mean everyone. Not just the government. The data still sits with the politicians, media or private institutions. If the official data and statistics were more accessible – especially at the local levels – we would be in a much better position to act strategically and make our own decisions. The official data now is free but it is hard to find. It is 2018 and with all of the social and traditional media out there, I still feel like we are not getting the whole story.


Another problem is the comparisons. I am not exactly married to the idea that we should compare ourselves to other countries on a regular basis. Yes, comparisons are important and the best case is when there are goals and targets set like in the Sustainable Development Goals agenda, However, political roadblocks can happen when not all countries agree to play a part. Also, the contexts are so different and the histories of how countries operate, that I think the most important thing for the U.S. is measuring the U.S. progress over time, in a timely way and communicate that. Anyway, when it comes to policy, it hasn’t helped when the media says that Australia has no gun violence because they outlawed guns. I wish that was enough to get us to act. It isn’t. So, if  the news and the government reported those U.S. gun violence, education, health and Co2 emissions numbers before going into their “regularly scheduled programming”, that would be better than waiting for the next mass murder or environmental disaster to occur only to move on to the next story – forgotten.

Quality of the data

The data aren’t great in general for a lot of these measures either. It takes a lot of time collect this data and it is only reported on yearly or more. There are also the tough things to measure like mental health. We do have data on suicides but can we not look more carefully at how we are feeling? If we had better data on this, it is more likely that we could actually take the real steps to ensure that people have access to the mental health services that are needed. With all of the technological progress we have made, we need to work on this harder. Resources must be allocated for this so that the gaps are filled and the information gets out in an accessible way.

I do think that the government should hold the data and be responsible and accountable for ensuring that we understand it. I’m a big proponent for official government statistics because it is not Administration specific. The U.S. is collecting some but to get access to it, is really very difficult especially at the local levels. Each election cycle there are politicians that stand up and report numbers but rarely do they give the context that is needed for the country. They give just as much as they understand and what can get them elected. Everyone is confused and ends up voting or arguing on things that are not well understood.

Nerdy visions

A vision of mine would be to see a dashboard of these better measures that has as much clout as GDP. So, I could go on ABC, NBC, CBS, MSNBC or NPR, CNN, Fox News or any of the other outlets and see how the country is fairing on these measures. Or, a ticker tape that is always rolling across the screen. I would like to see that kind of accountability for equality just as we do for GDP. At this point we only hear about these other important issues here and there. And it definitely doesn’t hit the nightly news unless a disaster or an election has struck.

My dashboard would have the state of the country’s education success at the end of each school year and I would localize this data as well if I want to know about my hometown. I’d like to see the state of incarceration numbers. I want to see gun violence numbers. I worry about our middle class so I would also like to see how the middle class is faring economically because that is our engine – not the top 1%. I want to know the state of women, immigrants, people of color and our LGBTQ communities in the U.S and in my town. I am also concerned about the mental health of our citizens. So, I want to measure that better and hear about it on a regular basis. Further, I want to know about the health of our oceans and all the animals that live there. I want to see a proper measure of the state of Co2 emissions visualized and communicated each day.

I want to see easily understandable charts and graphs from official sources which show our progress so communities of people can decide where they need to go and can manage it well. This is called accountability and our tax dollars should go to the improvement, collection and sharing of these statistics.

Two Lane will be reporting on measures that matter regularly so check back with us to get the latest. 

Categories: Politics, Tools

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