A quick review of the Canadian Index of Wellbeing

Gross Domestic Product measures the market value of all the goods and services produced in a given territory in a certain amount of time. This measure is often used by economists, social scientists, and politicians as a proxy for a territory’s wellbeing. This is despite the fact that pretty much anyone who knows anything about GDP would readily admit that it does not adequately reflect wellbeing nor does it even capture all economic activity. So there have been attempts made from a wide range of sources to replace the GDP and find some objective measure for the wellbeing of a population.

The latest attempt comes out of the University of Waterloo by the “Canadian Index of Wellbeing Network” headed by Roy Romanow.

It is a deeply flawed index.

Fundamentally the problem is that it attempts to measure wellbeing by using indicators that are laced with the values of the authors rather than an objective measure.

For example, why is democratic engagement fundamental to wellbeing? If I am satisfied to be ignorant of the process of government, why is this harmful to my wellbeing?

Furthermore why is the indicator for global engagement the Net Official Development Assistance as a percent of gross national income? Why is this form of international cooperation more significant than say free trade or military alliances?

The education section of the Index is even rifer with the value biases of the authors. Instead of focusing on educational outcomes the authors look at additional superfluous indicators such as socialization. They also look at student to teacher ratios and how many people attend post-secondary education. This stuff may be important to education and they may not be, either way they are not objective measures of the quality of education in society (If 100% of the population graduated from a high school system that failed to teach them to read that would not be a good outcome). It is pretty clear that these indicators are included because the authors think that they are important not for any objective reasoning.

There are other problems with the Index. The standard of living section alone deserves to be ripped to absolute shreds. But I think if they have succeeded in anything it is in underlining exactly why it is so hard to come up with a true objective scientific measure of wellbeing.

Wellbeing has to be defined theoretically; it is an ideological question. It is impossible to remove completely from any such index any hint of ideological allegiance because you have to make choices about what is and is not important. So we should recognize this Index for what it is and what it is not.

It is not an objective scientific measure of the wellbeing of Canadians.

It is an interesting (or not depending on your bias) aggregation of varied data.

It is not a replacement for GDP as an accepted proxy for wellbeing.