There is a certain arrogance of social scientists and economists, in particular, in that they believe that complex concepts within the human experience can be reduced to a few selected variables.
Once more, another international study develops markers and labels for us. This time, Steve Hanke, a professor of applied economics at the prestigious Johns Hopkins University, now says that we are a very miserable people.
Working with the Economist Intelligence Unit, an entity I am tempted to call ‘misnomered’, Hanke has followed the old dated panky and committed the sexagenarian sin of using this limited discipline to explain a concept beyond its scope. As with the post-World War II thinkers, who were befuddled by the impressive increases in gross domestic product (GDP) in Third World countries, Hanke uses a set of economic variables, which, admittedly, do give an indication of a country’s progress or at least its ability to do so.
Looking at measures, such as GDP per capita, unemployment levels and lending rates, the study feeds the Cato’s Misery Index (CMI), which, really, is a revised version of Harvard professor, Robert Barro’s 1999, Barro Misery Index (BMI). Using that statistic, Jamaica is ranked ninth out of 108 countries last year.
MEASURING SOCIAL PHENOMENA
In sociology, we recognise that social phenomena are not naturally apparent or measurable, and being ‘ideational’, have to be defined at the conceptual level before being operationalised into something that we put the tape to. Thus, the first question must be: “Do economists know what misery is and have they properly defined it?”
According to the Oxford Dictionary, misery is “a state or feeling of great physical or mental distress or discomfort”. It comes from the Latin miseria, which, travelled through Old French, miserie, to Old English miser. All mean ‘wretched’, yet, curiously, the word ‘miser’ refers to someone who actually has money, and is not wont to spend it. Thus, our neighbour, who holds on to his $100 so tightly that Mr Sangster grimaces, is defined as “a person who hoards wealth and spends as little money as possible”.
Taking their cue from Karl Marx, who used an economic determinist point of view, modern-day economists use the term ‘immiseration’ to refer to impoverishment within a nation, especially because of development strategies.
MONEY NOT ALL
Yet, scholars of the more holistic concept of development recognise that while money is vital – ranking close to water and oxygen – it does not truly measure human comfort. Almost 50 years ago, Professor Dudley Seers, from the University of Sussex, looking at the experience of the ‘growth-first’ economic approaches of the period between 1945 and 1968, quickly recognised that development was “much else besides economic growth”. For him, rightly so, a country cannot be seen as advancing unless there were other important indicators.
These include, but were not limited to, an increase in literacy and education, a reduction in inequalities, and a trend towards the elimination of absolute poverty. Moreover, the “citizenship in a country that is truly democratic” was, for him, indispensable. If Hanke and others were calling their concept the economic hardship measure (EHM) or human economic living level (HELL), I would not be telling them to go to this last statistic.
However, there is much more than economic factors that make a person miserable. After, all, a miser who earns a lot, owns much property, has access to ready finance, and who has a business that is growing annually cannot conceivably be miserable by the CMI.
The antithesis of misery must be happiness, and this must take into consideration all elements of human existence. Therefore, in the 1980s, the UN came up with a much more useful measurement of the human condition and conceptualised the human development index, (HDI). This indicator, along with GDP and employment levels, also captures health and life expectancy, as well as educational levels.
Doubtless, this is much more instructive. After all, one would imagine that if life expectancy is increasing and a population is becoming healthier and its children are achieving higher levels of education than the previous generation, that must have an impact on misery.
BEYOND DOLLARS AND CENTS
Moreover, what is the economic value, if it can be measured, of living in a country that is democratic? Say all you want – and some of us do – but having the right to boot out the government after five years, electing local government representatives, and having free and fair elections must be more priceless than MasterCard. Furthermore, we can complain about our public officials, invite the attention of myriad state agencies with interesting acronyms such as OUR, OCG, NEPA, INDECOM, and demand answers under the Access to Information Act. And yes, we are free to go to ATI, where we can drink a beer on the street without being arrested.
And what of freedom of expression? Freedom House ranks the Jamaica media environment among the freest in the world. Over the last couple of years, the press in Jamaica has been given two thumbs up despite agencies such as Cato giving us other fingers.
Interestingly, in 2009, British-based New Economics Foundation used a more incorporative set of variables, such as life expectancy, environment, health and others to measure us. We were ranked number three in the world and in 2013 slipped to a still impressive sixth.
Inasmuch as this conceptual gap exists between the two think tanks, let us put the question in simple practical terms. Would you give up your right to move about, criticise or replace your government, sue your police or call radio stations, in order to get a 30 per cent increase in your income? You know the answer.
Nonetheless, because of our colonial experience, we are quick to validate such studies. Especially since they come from ‘top of-the-line universities’. The UWI’s Research Days are next week. Bet you many of us won’t give as much credence to similar studies that are done by our own.