Tuesday, June 26, 2012

How Cuba Became a 'Happy' Country

Citizens flee on rafts. But environmentalists know better.

In what league does Iraq beat Britain, Haiti beat the United States, and Afghanistan beat Denmark? Political corruption? Violent crime? Temperature? No, welcome to the weird and wonderful world of the Happy Planet Index. It is a little window into the way many environmentalists think.
The Happy Planet Index (HPI) purports to "measure what matters: the extent to which countries deliver long, happy, sustainable lives for the people that live in them." It beautifully illustrates the two great vices of environmentalist thought: fetishizing resource efficiency above everything else and treating happiness economics with far too much respect.

Countries with high living standards tend to use more natural resources. That's why instead of being praised as having a dynamic economy and being the least corrupt country in Africa, Botswana comes at the bottom of the Happy Planet Index. It scores a pitiful 22.6, way below the Democratic Republic of the Congo (30.5) and Zimbabwe (35.3). Botswana's people might enjoy a much higher standard of living, but that means a larger ecological footprint.
Of course I will use less oil if I walk to work instead of driving or even getting the bus, or if I bring in crops by hand instead of using a combine harvester. The price you pay for that is normally taking a lot more time and therefore being a lot less productive: That's why we have to balance resource efficiency against other priorities. You might be able to consume fewer resources (and create lots of green jobs) by having people run in giant hamster wheels, but that doesn't make it a sensible way to power a city.
Happiness economics has similar problems. It works by asking people how satisfied they are with their lives. To assess "experienced well-being," the Happy Planet Index uses a question called the "Ladder of Life" from the Gallup World Poll. It asks respondents to imagine a ladder, where zero is the worst possible life and 10 is the best possible life, and report the step of the ladder on which they feel they currently stand.
The problem with a question like that is that your horizons might be a little more limited if you've grown up in a war-torn village in Afghanistan instead of prosperous, stable and connected Denmark. The average inhabitant of Copenhagen can probably imagine a more impressive life than the average inhabitant of Kabul, and that means a much higher bar for the real lives to meet.
It's even worse if you've grown up on the American dream. Do we really want to give countries high marks because the people living there treat just scraping by as a real achievement?
The Happy Planet Index hasn't been composed by some lonely obsessive living with his mother and boring a very small number of readers in a rarely visited corner of the Internet. No, the Happy Planet Index has been produced by the New Economics Foundation, a think tank with an annual budget of more than $3.9 million and a staff of more than 50. They may be as mad as a box of frogs, but these people are well-funded and influential.
They are also playing with taxpayers' money. One of the New Economics Foundation's biggest donors in 2010-11—giving them more than $155,000—was the British government's Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs paid more than $90,000 for another project in 2009 in which the New Economics Foundation produced a report—"Moments of change as opportunities for influencing behaviour"—which looked to Communist Cuba for an example of "mass efficiency improvement."
Cuba, by the way, ranks 12th on the Happy Planet scale.
Reports like the Happy Planet Index claim to show us a different way of measuring success that "puts current and future well-being at the heart of measurement." But there's a reason Cubans regularly risk (and lose) their lives trying to escape their home country and make it to America, and there's no waves of humanity flowing in the opposite direction. That the Happy Planet Index can't capture those realities, or chooses to ignore them, suggests, well, that its authors are living on another planet.
Mr. Sinclair is director of the TaxPayers' Alliance, a London-based think-tank.

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