Commentary: New progress index pits wealth vs. well-being

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By Jim Pettit

Change Maryland

Here is the official tagline of a little-noticed new Maryland state government program called the Genuine Progress Indicator: “Wealth vs. Well-Being — How Do We Measure Prosperity?”

State government decided to pit wealth against well-being.  It could have said wealth and well-being because to most people these aren’t mutually exclusive attributes.  But to state government it’s “versus.”

Therein lies the entire false premise and false choice of the Genuine Progress Indicator, or GPI.

Governor hosted summit under the radar

Governor Martin O’Malley recently hosted an Annapolis summit for advocates of the burgeoning GPI movement. The national forum received scant media attention and the issue itself has largely been under the radar of most mainstream media outlets. This is an ambitious attempt to redefine economic progress in America and should not be under the radar any longer.

The web-based Maryland GPI initiative, implemented in the executive branch of Maryland state government since 2010, is among the forefront of states implementing this effort thus far. In addition to Maryland, Oregon is exploring the GPI program.  Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin signed GPI legislation into law this spring.

Positioned as an alternative to traditional federal government statistics, such as the gross state product, this new government performance metric is applying new and arbitrary criteria that other government bureaucrats deem as environmental and social costs that accrue from prosperity. Economic, environmental and social “indicators” then attempt to deduct or add various scenarios that occur with everyday life to state-government planning models.  For example, deducted would be a wide range of wildly-subjective indicators such as noise pollution and income inequality.

Subjective measurements ran from absurd to lunatic

It’s hard to see where this ends.  The subjective nature of what is to be measured ranges from absurdity to lunacy.

In the case of noise pollution, presumably this would mean that the government should measure the decibel levels of fire truck sirens and place that in the liability column of the states Genuine Progress Indicator.

As for income inequality, the Maryland GPI states that, 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, feelings of injustice, and other socio-economic challenges.  Unknown is what too unequal means much less how the government is supposed to reduce personal tensions arising from income disparities.

Maryland’s new performance metric also contains a number of meaningless platitudes.  For example state government tells us that, “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.”

Papering over proven statistical measures

Another troubling aspect of this new program is the possibility that it will be used to simply paper over economic statistics the administration dislikes.  Under O’Malley, Maryland is falling further and further behind competitors in the region and across the country according to legitimate organizations, and objective, accepted and proven measures.

Maryland has lost 6,500 businesses and 31,000 members of taxpayer households between 2007 and 2010, which puts Maryland at or near the bottom of the region.  The loss of 36,000 jobs since 2007 also cements Maryland’s place as a regional laggard in economic performance.  These numbers 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.  This is an effort to throw out real economic reports and adopt a radical propaganda campaign inspired by the failed model of central economic planning.

Nationally, the GPI agenda is pushed by groups such as New York-based Demos, a liberal public policy non-profit that describes itself as dedicated to “empowering the public sector” and that advocates “re-thinking American capitalism as it exists today.”

GPI is also pushed by a cadre of left-wing university professors who say that people just need food and shelter for happiness, economies do not need to grow, individuals are interchangeable with one another and that corporations will collapse.

Maryland’s well-being will be greatly enhanced when we stop losing businesses, jobs and our tax base. It’s absolutely ridiculous that accepted measures such as IRS tax migration data are ignored and this radical left-wing nonsense is what the state wants to use to measure its lack of progress.

If the administration truly wants to measure something that matters, they can start by determining why 31,000 members of taxpayer households vanished from the state.  A growing tax base is a reliable indicator of both wealth and well-being and so are the other traditional economic metrics our society has relied on for decades.

Jim Pettit is policy and communications Director for Change Maryland. Founded by former Secretary Larry Hogan, Change Maryland is a grassroots organization with 23,000 members.