Monday, December 12, 2011

Have important factors been omitted from the HALE index of well-being?

The aim of the Fairfax organization in sponsoring the development of the Herald/Age - Lateral Economics (HALE)  index of the well-being of Australians seems to have been to publish a broad indicator of social progress in the hope that this will help people to avoid viewing GDP as ‘the supreme indicator of our wellbeing’.

In contrast to some previous attempts to create ‘genuine’ progress indexes for Australia, which seem to have been aimed at maximizing the weight placed on possible negative spillovers associated with economic growth, the authors of this index seem to have adopted a fair-minded approach. However, I still have some concerns about the methodology adopted. I discussed one of those concerns in my last post – namely that it would be desirable for the index to take into account changes in uncertainty about the economic situation if it is to be taken seriously as an indicator of short term changes in well-being. In this post I want to identify important factors that have been omitted from the HALE index that might affect its use as an indicator of longer-term changes in well-being.

It seems to me that the most important factors affecting individual well-being are social capital (respect for person and property, quality of governance, individual safety, inter-personal trust) national security (peacefulness of the international environment, relations with other countries, security threats) physical and financial capital (financial wealth, housing, infrastructure, indebtedness, economic security) human capital (skills, health, personal relationships and emotional well-being) and natural capital (natural resources, environment). The relatively importance of different factors must ultimately be a subjective judgement, but this does necessarily mean that all important factors are taken into account when people are asked to rate their satisfaction with their lives. For example, there is empirical evidence that even though personal safety is obviously fundamental to individual well-being its contribution to measured life satisfaction is negligible in Australia (see, for example, a study I have undertaken using the Australian Centre on Quality of Life data set). One possible explanation is that most people feel so safe living in Australia that safety concerns do not even register in their minds when they are asked about their life satisfaction.

The most obvious omissions in the HALE index are social capital and national security. Those factors are unlikely to affect well-being much from year to year, but their impact over several decades could be substantial. For example, looking back over the last 40 years, there has arguably been a substantial improvement in the well-being of Australians as a result of improvements in relations among countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

Some less obvious omissions in the HALE index may also be important. The starting point of the index, net national income, reflects some flows of services from human, physical, financial and natural capital and one source of change in capital stocks (net investment in physical capital). Subsequent adjustments to take into account changes in environmental capital and human capital are presumably aimed at measuring changes in capital stocks more comprehensively to obtain a comprehensive income measure (based on the Haig-Simons definition of income i.e. consumption plus change in net wealth). I use the word ‘presumably’ because change in human capital from improvements in school education is measured in terms of the estimated effects of an improvement in current PISA scores on long-run GDP, without any discounting to take account of the passage of time required before improved PISA scores could possibly be reflected in the human capital of members of the labour force. It seems to me that, rather than fluctuating widely depending on literacy and numeracy skills of the current crop of school children, the value of human capital stocks probably changes gradually over time as people with differing skill levels enter and leave the labour force.

The market values of some forms of wealth obviously fluctuate fairly widely from year to year, but this is not taken into account in the methodology used in calculating the index. Changes in the value of financial capital and housing are ignored in calculating the index. This raises the question of whether the effects on well-being of such unrealized capital gains and losses are as great as for changes in current income. My feeling is that they are probably not as great. Investors are likely to view capital gains and losses in a different light to changes in dividends. Home owners who obtain unrealized capital gains on their homes would probably not generally feel that there has been much change in their well-being – their home still provides the same services to them as it did previously. Their lives probably remain largely unchanged unless, of course, they run down their liquid assets of borrow funds in order to spend their capital gains.

However, this brings me to what seems to be an important omission in the HALE index - it doesn’t make any allowance for changes in debt levels. Well-being is more closely related to net wealth than to total physical and financial assets. Looking at Australia as a whole, debts cancel out to a large extent – the liabilities of one person are the assets of another – but they do not cancel out completely. Changes in net foreign debt levels may have important implications for the average well-being of Australians. Changes in interest rates on foreign debt should also be taken into account because they influence the extent to which current income is available for purposes other than debt servicing.

Research by the Australian Centreon Quality of Life several years ago shows that people who have difficulty in repaying debt tend to have lower subjective well-being than those who do not have such problems (Survey 11, Report 11, August 2004). In the light of current debt problems in many developed countries it seems remarkable that happiness researchers have not given a great deal more attention to the effects of excessive debt on personal well-being. 

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