by Robert Maynard
On Wednesday and Thursday of this week the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee held hearings on S.237, An act relating to the Genuine Progress Indicator, introduced by Senators Anthony Pollina (D-Washington), Dick McCormack (D-Windsor) and Jeanette White (D-Windham), arguably some of the most far left members of the legislature. As passed the senate, the bill proposes to:
1) require a genuine progress indicator committee to develop an economic indicator, to be named “the genuine progress indicator,” to replace the gross domestic product as a measure of Vermont’s economic health; and 2) require the governor to use the genuine progress indicator developed by the committee as a factor in preparing the state budget.
According to testimony from Senator Anthony Pollina (D-Washington) and Jon Erickson, Managing Director of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, the bill will be amended to “supplement” rather than “replace” the “gross domestic product” as a measurement and the Governor would not be “required” to use the indicator in preparing his budget.
During the hearing, committee members raised the question of who would decide the parameters of the index and make changes to them over time. The representative of the Gund Institute answered that the indicator would be created by a committee working with the Institute composed of sixteen members, mostly secretaries and commissioners of various departments or their designees, plus a representative designated by the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics of the University of Vermont, and a representative designated by the Vermont Community Foundation. The setup would follow a model of the Maryland project known as “Smart, Green and Growing,” which the Gund Institute had a hand in developing.
However, the intention here is to make the Vermont model even more comprehensive than the one in Maryland. The twenty-nine parameters listed in the bill as factors in creating the Vermont indicator encompass everything from a livable wage to income distribution to leisure time to household pollution abatement, loss of farmland, wetlands, ozone depletion, non-renewable resources… etc.
The central argument put forward for using this approach that both Senator Pollina and the representative from the Gund Institute gave was that the traditional gross state product was only a quantitative measurement. The intent behind the GPI approach is to make qualitative measurements so that policy reflects our values. Herein lies the problem. Such “qualitative” measurements are necessarily subject and more likely to reflect the values of those who create the index rather than the people as a whole. A close look at the website for the Maryland project, the Gund Institute’s own website, as well as the public statements of support from groups like the Vermont Workers Center surrounding the introduction of S.237, indicates an ideological slant in favor of an overreaching government. This is true not only in factors that are not included, but the spin on those that are.
Each year groups like the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute put out indexes on economic freedom where the nations of the world are rated according to the degree of economic freedom. Here in Vermont, the Ethan Allen Institute puts out policy work that differs greatly in its basic perspective from those who have been tasked to create this indicator. I can easily imagine a “genuine progress indicator” that would look a lot different if it was created by the Cato Institute or even the Ethan Allen Institute. Those of us who value individual liberty, independence and opportunity may prefer the product of such groups as opposed to the ones who have been tasked to create the proposed GPI.
There is a reason why measurements like gross domestic product are more prominent. They are far more objective indicators that make it harder for those doing the measuring to impose their subjective value judgments on the public as whole. Qualitative measurements are important, but it matters greatly who is doing the measuring. The representative from the Gund Institute correctly pointed out that the data which would go into such an indicator is already out there, it is just a matter of collecting it and analyzing it. I would suggest that we leave it that way and let different groups representing various ideological perspectives create their own indicators and make the case for state policy reflecting their work. It is highly unwise to give a monopoly on creating an indicator guiding public policy to a single ideological perspective.