Politics & Policy

Redefining American Progress

Watch out for the latest progressive scheme: the Genuine Progress Indicator.

When V. I. Lenin wanted to change the economic course of the fledgling Soviet Union in the 1920s, he instituted the New Economic Policy. In the 1950s, Mao Tse-tung sought to transform China with the Great Leap Forward. In the 2010s, a group of progressives dissatisfied with the United States’ political and social landscape are pushing the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI).

Developed as an alternative to gross domestic product for measuring prosperity, this new performance metric allows politicians and bureaucrats to take account of more subjective costs and benefits in calculating “genuine” progress. As its advocates put it, the GDP measures wealth, whereas the GPI measures “well-being.” Thus, economic, environmental, and social “indicators” are designated assets or liabilities in this contrived new balance sheet.

Maryland governor Martin O’Malley hosted a summit in Annapolis earlier this month for members of the burgeoning GPI movement. This national forum received scant media attention, and the issue itself has largely been under the radar of most mainstream-media outlets. But when we’re facing such an ambitious undertaking as redefining American progress, it’s time to get a clear view of where this is heading.

Maryland is on the leading edge of the GPI initiative, having implemented it in the executive branch of the state government in 2010. Vermont governor Peter Shumlin signed GPI legislation into law this spring. And Oregon is currently exploring the GPI program. The web-based Maryland program offers a prototype of how the GPI is supposed to work.

Deducted from the GPI are the costs of a wide range of environmental and social indicators such as noise pollution, climate change, and income inequality. Added to the GPI are values assigned to non-paying activities such as volunteer work, leisure time, and housework. The subjective nature of the quantification of these indicators is stunning.

In the case of noise pollution, for example, the government would measure the decibel levels of fire-truck sirens, car horns, jackhammers, and so on, and place the resulting number in the liability column of the state’s Genuine Progress Indicator.

As for income inequality, the Maryland GPI states, “If a society becomes too unequal, if more and more wealth is concentrated in the hands of only a few, it will lead to rising tensions.” GPI advocates assume that they know what “too unequal” means and how to go about lessening income disparities.

The Maryland GPI also tells us, “Marylanders’ social well-being is reduced when the underemployed are not working to their full potential by consequential negative feelings and actions, such as frustration and substance abuse.” It’s hard to see where this will end, but this is just the beginning.

The most troubling aspect of this new program is that it aims to substitute central planning by politicians and bureaucrats for economic freedom. But also troubling is the fact that the GPI can be used to simply paper over economic statistics political leaders dislike. Under O’Malley, Maryland is falling further behind its regional competitors, according to objective, accepted, and proven measures supplied by legitimate organizations. In terms of the number of businesses lost, erosion of the tax base, and the unemployment rate, the state is lagging behind its neighbors in traditional economic performance.

Such metrics come from the U.S. Census Bureau, the IRS, and the Department of Labor, respectively. But they are not part of the Genuine Progress Indicator. In fact, the governor issued a press release in conjunction with the Annapolis conference that claims the Maryland GPI increased 2 percent over last year. Nobody but the bureaucrats running the program have any idea where this number comes from.

It’s not just a few governors advancing this agenda. Nationally, the GPI agenda is pushed by groups such as the New York–based Demos, a liberal public-policy nonprofit that describes itself as dedicated to “empowering the public sector” and “rethinking American capitalism as it exists today.”

The GPI is also promulgated by a cadre of left-wing university professors, who say that economies do not need to grow, that individuals are interchangeable with one another, and that corporations ought to collapse.

For example, the Oregonian newspaper covered an April fact-finding meeting led by Robert Costanza, a professor at Portland State University, and attended by Governor John Kitzhaber. According to the Oregonian, Professor Costanza explained that “researchers have found in surveys that once people have basic food, shelter and security, additional wealth has little effect on their happiness.”

Propaganda is the basic foundation on which central economic planning is built. It will require a great deal of propaganda to convince us that we’re doing better if we lose our jobs and thus have more leisure time and opportunities for volunteer work. When planning models fail, however, we can look to Mao’s China and Lenin’s Soviet Union for tips on how to deal with the aftermath.

Jim Pettit is policy and communications director for Change Maryland. Founded by former Maryland cabinet secretary Larry Hogan, Change Maryland is a grassroots organization with 25,000 members.


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