Gross National Unhappiness

Sarkozy and Stiglitz say we should measure well-being instead of GDP. Bhutan shows how it can all go

Who could be against defining a nation's success by its level of happiness? Much more feel-good than grubby old GDP, especially in times when there's less of the P to go around. This is what President Sarkozy of France is now urging, after taking delivery of a report by two Nobel Prize-winning economists, Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen.

But the auguries are not good. The country that famously already runs on these lines, Bhutan, is far from happy. In fact, as this report in the Independent shows, it has recently been suffering a spate of suicides.

The more obvious objection, however, is just how woolly Gross National Happiness is as a measure. Who decides what counts as happiness, and what happens when one person's pleasure causes another's pain? This applies in numerous ways to religion. Just the other night I was watching Sepet, a film by the much-missed Malaysian film director Yasmin Ahmad, in which Orked, the Malay female lead, meets her Chinese boyfriend in a cafe. As she passes the chef chopping up crispy pork, poor Orked looks as if she's been stung by a wasp. She's a Muslim, he's Taoist. An essential pleasure for him is anathema to her. More generally, any kind of felicific calculus, as Jeremy Bentham titled his formula for quantifying pain and pleasure, is going to have problems recognising the value of actions and experiences relating to religion or, for that matter, attacks on religion.

Much as utilitarianism appeals, I've found it difficult to take these attempts to weave it into governmental programmes seriously since going to a talk that our own "happiness tsar", Richard Layard, gave at the Palace of Westminster. When I raised the question of how elitism and higher pleasures fitted in with his theories, he gave me a very cold look. Enough said. Any attempt to enliven the "dismal science", as Carlyle called economics, is to be welcomed. But discussions of happiness all too often start off vague and swiftly head towards vacuity.

Let's see how much we hear about Sarkozy's grand new plan a few months down the line.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.