Friday, 9 March 2012

Heaven knows I'm miserable now

A couple of weeks ago the Mayor’s economists at City Hall issued a report that I suspect the Mayor has not read: “Well being in London: measurement and use”.

Unusually, the report has a named author, Elizabeth Smart. This is slightly awkward, because I don’t know Ms Smart, and I’m sure she’s a nice person, but the report is very depressing, and for three very different reasons, only one of which is her fault.

The first reason it’s depressing is that it makes it very clear indeed that the people of London are more miserable than people anywhere else in Britain. Drawing on a variety of sources, the report states (with my emphases throughout):

• “Figure 1 shows that over the period 2005/6-2010/11 the self assessment of well-being by Londoners was below the rest of the UK.”

• “Figure 2 shows [that] London has the lowest happiness scores of all regions apart from the North East which dips below London in 2010/11.”

• “Figure 3 breaks down the results by various characteristics… [and] there are very few instances where London’s happiness score is above the UK’s.”

• “For Londoners, overall life satisfaction is lower than for those living in the rest of the UK (see figure 4)”

• “Two thirds of London LSOAs have above average levels of deprivation, the highest of any region, with by far the smallest proportion of LSOAs among the least deprived quintile”; “a higher proportion of children live in workless households in London (20.7 per cent) than in the UK as a whole (15.8 per cent)”, “crime rates in London are among the highest in England” and “the unemployment rate in London is higher than in the UK as a whole”.

Despite being “the most productive region in the UK” which can “justly be called the driving force of the UK economy”, and despite the fact at “at £900 per week, London’s gross weekly household income was 15 per cent higher than the next highest region and 35 per cent higher than the UK figure” Londoners are more miserable than anyone else.

And, just in case you try to wriggle off by thinking that maybe it’s a bit like being a middle-ranked team in the premier league, we learn:

• “One international ranking of subjective well-being [the Unicef child well-being report] ranked the UK as the lowest of the 21 participating countries”.

This is clearly not something to be proud of or pleased about; indeed, it is something about which to be concerned, possibly even angry. It suggests that Londoners are – on average - almost certainly the unhappiest people in Britain, and possibly the world.

The second reason to be depressed by the report is that it illustrates the sheer scale of the challenge we face if we are to explain ‘the real world’ to economists.

According to the report “more income allows us to satisfy more of our wants, hence Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is normally thought to be synonymous with well-being”. I beg your pardon? I can only satisfy my wants if I have more money? There are no wants that don’t require money?

And when was the last time you met a normal person who thought that ‘GDP’ and ‘well-being’ were synonyms?

Also, apparently, “the seminal paper [on well-being] was the Stiglitz, Sen and Fitoussi Report commissioned by French President Sarkozy.” This remark sweepingly ignores decades of work by great numbers of academics and activists, on the grounds – presumably – either that the author thinks that all the previous work has been done by people that don’t really matter (perhaps because they are not ‘proper’ economists) or because the author has simply not bothered to do a bit of background reading. It is a bit like believing that Manchester United are ‘seminal’ or Blur were ‘seminal’ or David Hockney is ‘seminal’. These people are all very good, indeed excellent; and so too is the Sarkozy Commission report.

But it ain’t, and they ain’t, seminal.

To her credit, the author does make some points and issue some reminders that readers might find interesting:

• “…the cost of repairs after the London riots boosted GDP… [but this] could hardly be regarded as a ‘positive’ economic outcome”

• “GDP… ignores many of the other determinants of well-being such as quality of social relations, economic security and personal safely, health and longevity”

and

• “Crime and fear of crime can have a potentially very significant impact on well-being”

(Oh, sorry, that last one just made me laugh. Only in a world of truly remarkable abstraction would it be necessary to point out that ‘crime and the fear of crime can have potentially very significant impact on well-being’. Think hard about what this is telling us about economists and the GLA. It is telling us that they do not actually know what bears do in the woods.)

And the third reason I find the whole thing so depressing is that I don’t imagine for one moment that this issue will get any airtime at all during the Mayoral election. The manifestos aren’t out yet, of course, so I can’t be sure, but the Boris v Ken show is already shaping up along extremely predictable lines. We’ll hear about bus fares and bobbies on the beat; we’ll hear about ‘fighting for our share’ and promoting the capital as a centre for business; we may even hear a little about poor people, or young people, or unemployment. And, of course, we’ll hear about the Olympics.

But admit to all this misery, and offer to do something about it? I think not.

Maybe I’m completely bonkers, but I can’t help thinking that calling it, naming it and engaging on it might, just might, touch the zeitgeist. Go on, I dare you.



No comments: