Mini-Feature: Measuring Society

How should we measure the productivity of a society?

There’s lot of ways to make fun of productivity measurement by pointing out the confusion of cause and effect. Milton Friedman said he was visiting China in the early seventies or so and was shown a massive excavation project with thousands of workers digging with shovels. He asked why the managers didn’t use bulldozers instead, and was told that this was a jobs project. “In that case,” he responded, “why don’t you make them use spoons?” That way they could employ ten times as many workers. 

Similarly, one hears stories, possibly apocryphal, that a Soviet truck factory working on a gross tonnage quota produced a line of enormous trucks that overfulfilled expectations, but which would destroy all roads and bridges, had turning radii larger than any intersection, were unserviceable, etc. 

The idea here is that centralized planning, with an emphasis on satisfying some arbitrary metric of production rather than the needs of the consumer, is doomed to fail. But our own standard of gross domestic product has problems, too, which leftist critics frequently point out. “Planned obsolescence” of consumer goods, which are essentially built to fall apart after a few years, increases sales and keeps workers employed, but is wasteful by any moral standard. Advanced medical technology creates significant economic activity by treating diseases that would be cheaper to prevent through exercise, diet, and other long-term non-economically productive behavior. 

The point of course is that people were not made for the economy. Any productivity-obsessed system—be it Red Chinese, Soviet, or ours—tends to focus on increasing chosen metrics of production rather than ameliorating the conditions of society. We need to measure what’s going on, but it’s a mistake to assume, for instance, that when trees shake themselves vigorously they are causing the winds to blow. 

-Seth Barron, managing editor of The American Mind


The claim implicit in the statistic called "GDP" is really quite staggering: here is a number that is supposed to tell you, in hard and absolute terms, how much value a civilization produces. Many of us were seduced into worshipping the almighty dollar precisely because it seemed to offer such a simple, neat measure of how well we were doing: number go up, country good. What this really amounted to was absolving ourselves of our responsibility to attend to every other measure of civic health. Our country's virtue, our national religion, the ties of affection and tradition that bind us together as fellow Americans: none of these were thought to matter much so long as number go up.

We are in that sense reaping the whirlwind. The bitter irony of our present moment is the bitter irony of all idol-worship: you sacrifice everything to get the one thing you want, and in the end you don't even get that one thing. We sacrificed rural American jobs and local communities, whole lives and churches and towns, and in the end we aren't even going to get the material wealth we would get out of it. Just the opposite.

If you really do want a number to suggest the true health and productivity of a nation, let me suggest one: the number of children born. "No country in which population flourishes, and is in progressive improvement, can be under a very mischievous government." So wrote Edmund Burke of pre-revolutionary France and so, as the Battlestar Galactica quote goes, say we all. 

The number of new souls brought willfully into being through love is a far more complete metric of productivity--not only because it directly measures the thing whose value infinitely outshines the value of all else, but also because it comes freighted with all sorts of implications that you otherwise cannot measure: implications of joy in the present, hope for the future, and the affirmation of human life as worthwhile per se. Run those numbers, and you will find we are not doing very well.

-Spencer Klavan, associate editor of The American Mind