An Impressive GDP, Quality of Life, and Sustainability: Pick Two out of Three?

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My weekend mornings have developed a certain routine of late. I brew some coffee, feed the pets, plug my iPhone into a set of speakers, open the KCRW app, and sit on the stoop in the warm Florida sun listening to NPR through the open door with my wife and dog. Well, my wife and I listen, anyhow. The dog’s mostly deaf. I recently caught this story about GDP and education in Jamaica and Barbados, the crux of which is that Barbados’s higher GDP per capita makes its educational system superior to that found in lower-GDP Jamaica.

In the most simplistic statistical reading—higher GDP per capita means higher tax revenue means better funded schools means better education—there seems to be some legitimacy to the story’s thesis. I don’t think real life is so simple, however. Unqualified as I am to provide an in-depth critique of the significance of GDP or the relative educational histories of Caribbean nations, I won’t attempt to here. Besides, those things aren’t what interest me. Without questioning the intelligence, honesty, or diligence of the author, I was struck by what I perceived to be a fine example of stuck-in-system thinking.

I’m guessing that at some point a metric was derived from the chain-of-causal-events mentioned above that linked an increase in GDP per capita with an increase in quality of education. The author took a look at Barbados and Jamaica, noticed both fit the model, put the story together, and slept well knowing that one plus one equals two. And his analysis might be entirely accurate, though I assume collateral factors are rife in both countries. My problem is with the line of thinking. Is using a (theoretically) simple economic aggregate to explain the relative success of a largely social process, education, really valid? For that matter, are metrics and formulas even appropriate tools for attempting to understand such complex issues? Isn’t stuck-in-system thinking what got us into the economic, ecological, and political messes our world is currently embroiled in?

Any sort of one-size-fits-all cognition scares me. I mean, hey, if the guy next door is a jerk, and he’s also Jewish, then all Jews must be bad, right? That’s a tasteless analogy, I know. But narrow thinking isn’t exactly full of flavor. There are still people who think that spending the same on education in Watts as in Beverly Hills will equally prepare students in both places for higher education and future careers. The obvious fact is that there’s more to it than that. Silver bullets in the analysis of complex issues, as in their solutions, are mythical things. GDP per capita might trend nicely with rates of education, but again there’s more to it than that. One could even argue that a truly educated and enlightened populace would seek to reduce GDP. More importantly, the de facto linking of GDP per capita with education is akin to imperialist conquerors sneering at happily “impoverished” natives. The silly fools are too stupid to know they are poor and godless, but we can fix that. I’m unfairly singling out a journalist whose example of stuck-in-system thinking isn’t really all that egregious compared to countless decision-makers who wield real power (and inflict real damage), but he’s the metaphorical camel here.

My point is that while efficiency might be good for economics (in the short term, at least), and while mathematicians might seek the most elegant (read: streamlined) equations, life can’t be boiled down to ones and zeros, Xs and Ys. I take issue with those who think it can—whether an economist who encourages increased oil production, a journalist who reports on island-nation education, or a planning consultant who visits a city once for seven hours before tweaking their signature master plan to “fit”—and I certainly don’t want them calling the shots.

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One Response to An Impressive GDP, Quality of Life, and Sustainability: Pick Two out of Three?

  1. You’re just as qualified to comment as the author or most other ‘experts’, don’t second guess yourself on that. However, I think you’re a bit uncharitable to those with the “stuck-in-the-system” thinking that the higher GDP means better education and leads to a better quality of life. I understand you’re questioning assumptions here, but if your point is a Dalai Llama like observation that some materially rich countries (the U.S.) aren’t as happy as some materially poor countries (say Nicaragua), I think you would be guilty of an even worse false correlation. Happiness, as we know in our individual lives, doesn’t entirely depend on outward circumstances, but is powerfully shaped by our internal attitudes towards the world around us. And this bears true on the collective scale as well. But it has been demonstrated, documented and thoroughly analyzed pretty conclusively that GDP per capita, an imperfect but legitimate measurement of individual material prosperity, has much to do with the alleviation of impoverished conditions that we know cause great human suffering. That was always at the heart of all those Xs and Ys. Ever read the Phantom Tollbooth when you were a kid? We need numbers and words both to describe the world, understand it, and ultimately improve it. If you mean to rethink a global system that currently values increasing GDP in the name of the alleviation of human suffering, I think you should put forward a larger, more substantiated argument in another post. One thing I think is certain: linking GDP to improving education isn’t an imperialist, derogatory notion.

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