Sunday, June 14, 2015

God’s Economy: A New Metric

As I wrote in my last post, what we count is what we get.

Or, as Dan Ariely, Duke University professor of behavioral economics, explains:
Human beings adjust behavior based on the metrics they’re held against. Anything you measure will impel a person to optimize his score on that metric. What you measure is what you’ll get. Period.   
Unfortunately, what’s easiest to count is rarely what we wanted most.

Education is one arena where this truth is increasingly evident.Teaching to the test in young grades may yield brief academic advantage, but those advantages don’t last, and what’s lost is hard to measure and harder still to regain: inquisitiveness, self-directed learning, play, joyful social interaction. Research documents the loss in both student and teacher motivation when intrusive assessment undermines real learning. 

Educators at every grade level object to over-reliance on standardized testing, and suggest that focus on test scores has made real education more elusive. According to Steve Nelson, of the Calhoun School in Manhattan:
Measure the wrong things and you’ll get the wrong behaviors. . . This simple statement succinctly characterizes why the American education system continues beating its head against the wall. . . 
After nearly 20 years of reading, observing, teaching and presiding over a school, I'm convinced that this simple statement -- "Measure the wrong things and you'll get the wrong behaviors" -- is at the root of what ails education, from cradle to grave. Measuring the wrong thing (standardized scores of 4th graders) drives the wrong behaviors (lots of test prep and dull direct instruction). In later school years, measuring the wrong thing (SAT and other standardized test scores, grade point averages, class rank) continues to invite the wrong behaviors (gaming the system, too much unnecessary homework, suppression of curiosity, risk-aversion, high stress).
Measuring the right things is more complicated and less profitable. But if we measured, even if only in our hearts, the things that we should truly value (creativity, joy, physical and emotional health, self-confidence, humor, compassion, integrity, originality, skepticism, critical capacities), we would engage in a very different set of behaviors (reading for pleasure, boisterous discussions, group projects, painting, discovery, daydreaming, recess, music, cooperation rather than competition). And, as the research in early childhood education makes clear, our children would be better at reading and math too.
 I’d like to see better metrics for education.

I’d also like to see better metrics for our economy.

As I noted last week, our current reliance on GDP and GNP to tell us how we’re doing fuels an economy focused on unsustainable growth, unwavering consumption, and a push for productivity that outweighs any hope for work-life balance or family-friendly policy.  

Robert Kennedy spoke eloquently about this in 1968, just months before he was assassinated:  
Too much and for too long, we seem to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.  Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product - if we judge the United States of America by that - that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.  It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them.  It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl.  It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.  It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.  Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.  It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.  
Last week I mentioned Bhutan’s interest in measuring gross national happiness (GNH) , and the launch of the GPI, the Gross Progress Indicator, in Maryland, Vermont, and Oregon.

Oxfam, Scotland, has been instrumental in creating yet another alternative: the Humankind Index, measuring access to housing, education, health care, safe outdoor environments, satisfying work.

All the indices I’ve seen move closer to honest assessment than the current GDP, but they also seem to miss the heart of what I’d want to measure.

I’ve been writing for the past few weeks about God’s economy, and the ways that scripture, read in context and thoughtfully applied, critiques and challenges the current strange trust American Christians place in consumptive capitalism.

The GDP measures how well we line up with the values of that economic model but says little about how well we adhere to the "oikonomeia," or "economia," literally "household law," described in both Old and New Testaments: an economy based on care for creation, fair treatment of livestock and workers, welcome and provision for the poor, the weak, the outsider.

If the numbers we heard each day were not about the rise and fall of stocks, the rise or fall of GDP, but instead the measure of our generous giving, our forgiveness of debt, children moved from poverty toplenty, immigrants embraced as part of a fairly-paid workforce, how would our behavior change?

As I’ve been thinking, praying, researching metrics, ways of assessing a different kind of value, I’m reminded of Wendell Berry’s The Mad Farmer Liberation Front. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
It occurs to me that I’ve been invisible to the GDP for almost half a decade: no income, very little spending. Doing things that don’t compute on any economic scale. Working very hard, almost every day, for nothing that the GDP can measure.

Yet, according to the Well-O-Meter™  I found in my hunt for a new metric, I rate a 9.53 in the Human Development Index, a composite index that has become one of the most widely used indices of well-being around the world. 

There are measurements that tell us almost nothing of importance (like the GDP).

And measurements that get closer to what might really matter (like the Human Development Index, or Oxfam’s Humankind Index).
But there will always be things we can’t measure.

The things of greatest value.







How do we keep ourselves moving toward the things God values most, when all around us the measurements point us in the opposite direction?

Maybe the first step is refusing to believe the numbers.

And looking beyond them to a different way of being. 
Don’t live the way this world lives. Let your way of thinking be completely changed. Then you will be able to test what God wants for you. And you will agree that what he wants is right. His plan is good and pleasing and perfect.   Romans 12:2 
UK Measures of National Wellbeing screenshot

This is the last in a series on God's Economy. Other posts:
Fruit that Will Last April 19, 2015
God’s Economy: Subtract or Multiply?  April 26, 2015
God’s Economy: Inescapable Network of Mutuality  May 3, 2015
God's Economy: Generational Investment May 10, 2015
God's Economy: Managing Anger Assets  May 17, 2015
God’s Economy: Muchness and Delight May 24, 2015
God’s Economy: What You Count, May 31, 2015