Wednesday 11 March 2015

The continuing search for a big number

Wellbeing is big in politics at the moment – or perhaps it’s better known as the happiness agenda.  It’s a long time since David Cameron talked about replacing GDP as a metric with a happiness index, but it’s still a live issue in politics.  Last week the British Academy and Prospect hosted an event with some pretty eminent speakers including Gus O’Donnell and David Halpern.

As an agenda, wellbeing is meant to open out new ways of thinking about politics.  What I was struck by, though, was the how the debate was conducted in very much the same terms as any other.  Perhaps inevitably given the backgrounds of most of the speakers, this ended up being a very technocratic discussion.  The audience certainly didn’t seem to be at odds with this approach, with one comment from the floor stressing the need for a wellbeing ‘number’ to rival GDP.

It might seem that such a proposal seeks to fundamentally change how we approach and judge politics, but in fact it’s merely an echo of a well-established (and perhaps discredited?) mode of politics.  All through O’Donnell’s talk I was thinking about how much this was the worldview of a New Labour era technocrat.  He was talking about the importance of cost-benefit analysis, and how wellbeing ought to be included in such analyses, through approaches such as social return on investment tools.

My perspective is slightly different, having seen inside the sausage machine.  All those claims about how much £1 spent on drug treatment saves the public are reliant on locally-generated data and cost estimates.  These might be in right ballpark, but they make me question the ability of them to inform marginal decisions about what to fund or what policy to implement.

And GOD (as O’Donnell was known) seemed to realise this too, casting doubt on the figures used to calculate the savings HS2 will generate.

There have been well-documented issues with government by ‘numbers’, and I would have thought that the real potential opportunity the concept of ‘wellbeing’ offers is to rethink fundamentally how we approach political issues.  The problem with GDP as I see it is that it is a single number with little nuance.  To replace it with another single number would strike me as just as misguided.

And of course most politicians haven’t focused simply on GDP.  It’s certainly a useful figure, but inequality is often also discussed, as are unemployment figures.  The fact is that politicians will always be looking for a figure that strengthens their case and position.

Wellbeing in this world isn’t an opportunity to fundamentally remodel politics; it’s a conceptual device to promote existing opinions.  Nic Marks, for example, at this event used wellbeing to argue that localism and further devolution of power was a good idea.  Personally, I can’t see what wellbeing adds to this debate – and I certainly can’t see that being pro-wellbeing should make you a localist.  I can imagine lots of public health advocates claiming that they believe in the importance of wellbeing and also noting the importance of national and international policy decisions on issues like alcohol.  Minimum unit pricing only really makes sense as a national policy, for example.  I’m not sure O’Donnell, with his view of policymaking and desire for a national wellbeing index, would agree with Marks either.

The most frustrating element of the event for me, though, was the lack of discussion around the potential role of a technocratic elite in making these decisions about what wellbeing might be and how it should be promoted.  David Halpern, the founder of the Behavioural Insights Team (better known as the Nudge Unit) originally within the Cabinet Office, revealingly stated that we’re often not very good at predicting what will make use happy.  He seemed to suggest that with better analysis and data we could get advice on making all sorts of decisions.  But giving that kind of advice really does mean having an idea of ‘eudaimonia’ agreed by society.  If analysts are to advise us on what makes us fulfilled, they’d surely need some kind of assumption about what fulfilment means for people in Britain.

And here’s the rub, and the key point of why GDP isn’t so bad after all – or, actually, why thinking in terms of money isn’t so bad.  (And I’m in the uncomfortable position of having to agree with Chris Snowdon on this – see p.92 on the value of economic growth here.)

The attraction of money – unless you’re modelling yourself on Silas Marner prior to the arrival of Eppie – is that you can exchange it for things you want.  You might spend £20,000 on a car.  I would think that to be mad, but it might make you ‘happy’ and ‘fulfilled’, and increase your ‘wellbeing’.  Money is a means to the end of individual fulfilment; wellbeing is that end – but to try to work out what it is for everyone seems to me to be a little fruitless.

Moreover, one of the dangers of focusing on wellbeing is that it misses the important point that money is a form of power.  The panellists suggested that we needed to focus on people who didn’t have high wellbeing rather than people who weren’t well off, but that leads me to worry (and this isn’t a particularly original thought) that we would be ignoring legitimate questions about the justice of the distribution of society’s rewards.  Money might not be everything, but it is something worth talking about.

Of course, politics isn’t – and shouldn’t be – simply about improving people’s financial lot, but the vision proposed at Senate House last Wednesday didn’t strike me as being any better.  The idea of wellbeing foregrounds issues of values, and we shouldn’t duck debates about these by thinking we can somehow resolve issues with a new all-encompassing ‘number’.

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