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#518 - Social Health, 30-Oct-1996

How are we doing as a nation? How can we really tell? Some say
everything is hunky dory. We have previously described the "good news
industry," which has created a buzz in recent years by repeating "all
is well, all is well" and ridiculing anyone who says otherwise.

Julian Simon, a professor of business at University of Maryland, is the
leading savant of the good news industry; his 694-page book, THE STATE
OF HUMANITY, claims to show that everything is getting better all the
time, worldwide, and he predicts that everything will continue to get
better "indefinitely." (See REHW #485 and #503.) Simon accomplishes
this by ignoring most of the world's serious environmental problems
because, he says, they are all surrounded by "major scientific
controversy."[1] (A similar claim can be made about any problem you
want to name, because scientists can always be found who --for a fee --
will create a controversy. For example, today it is possible to enjoy a
lucrative career claiming that cigarettes may not cause lung cancer,
thus creating the appearance of controversy where none exists.) Simon
says acid rain, global warming, depletion of the ozone layer, and loss
of species are all so controversial that they must be ignored because
we just don't know who's right. By this means, Simon manages to
conclude that all trends are positive throughout the world.

John Tierney, a "good news" writer for the NEW YORK TIMES who never
allows his conclusions to be constrained by mere facts, promotes Julian
Simon's views and simply dismisses anyone who suggests that perhaps not
all trends are positive. ("We think the world is getting worse because
our bodies are deteriorating," says Tierney --as if individual aging
explained declining fish populations in the world's oceans, tattered
safety nets for workers throughout the industrialized world, or rising
teenage suicides worldwide.) Tierney ridicules anyone who is concerned
about present trends. He says, for example, "As the rest of the world
becomes as rich as America, people everywhere will have the luxury of
fretting about the problems that consume us. As more of their babies
survive, they'll focus on endangered species of beetles."[2]

A new book by Paul and Anne Ehrlich analyzes the good news industry and
shows that it is undermining public confidence in science and reason.
[3] We will review it at a later time, but our readers should know it
exists now because the good news industry is hard at work deflecting
attention away from environmental and social problems by claiming that
such problems have been solved, or never existed in the first place.
The Ehrlichs have provided a careful analysis of the good news industry
(which they call "brownlash journalism") and have provided mainstream
scientific critiques of its optimistic conclusions.

In RACHEL'S #516, we examined ways of measuring progress. The standard
way of measuring it, called Gross Domestic Product or GDP, measures the
total amount of money that changes hands for finished products during a
year's time. GDP is constantly increasing, and most journalists and
politicians treat GDP as a good measure of human welfare. Since GDP is
constantly increasing, all of us must be better off each year (at least
on average), or so the argument goes.

However, as we saw in #516 there are several good reasons for believing
that GDP is NOT a sound measure of well being. An alternative measure,
called the Genuine Progress Indicator, or GPI, modifies GDP by adding
in money transactions that GDP treats as zero (the value of peoples'
voluntary work for neighborhood associations, churches and other
charities, for example).[4] GPI modifies GDP further by SUBTRACTING
costs of crime, social dissolution (divorce, for example) and
ecological damage, which GDP treats either as zero or as positive

values even though they clearly have a negative impact on human

GPI is not a perfect measure of human well being, but the values that
it uses to modify GDP are more reasonable than the zero values that GDP
uses; furthermore, treating the costs of crime and social breakdown as
negative, instead of positive, is certainly reasonable. Figure 1 shows
that per capita GDP has risen steadily since 1950. However, the figure
also shows that GPI has steadily declined since about 1970. This figure
reveals that there is something fundamentally wrong with the analysis
provided by the good news industry. Julian Simon, John Tierney and
their ilk pretend that all trends are upward, but GPI shows that this
is not so. When reasonable measures of progress are taken, it becomes
apparent why many people believe things are getting worse. By many
measures, things ARE getting worse.

In addition to GPI, there is another national measure of well being. It
is called the Index of Social Health, published each year by
researchers at Fordham University's Graduate Center in Tarrytown, New
York. For the past 11 years, Marc Miringoff and his colleagues at
Fordham have been gathering data on 16 measures of well being. The data
go back to 1970 and are current through 1993.

The Fordham index accounts for well being during different stages of
life. For children, it reports infant mortality, child abuse, and
poverty. For youth, it reports teenage suicides, drug use, and the
high-school dropout rate. For adults, it reports unemployment, average
weekly earnings, and health insurance coverage among those under age
65. For those 65 and over, it reports poverty, and out-of-pocket
health-care costs. For people of all ages, it reports homicides;
alcohol-related highway deaths; food stamp coverage; access to
affordable housing; and the gap between rich and poor.[5]

These measures are not taken against some absolute standard, such as
zero poverty or 100% health insurance coverage. They are taken against
the best that the U.S. has achieved in each category since 1970.
[6,pg.464] Taking the best that the U.S. has achieved in each category,
a Model Year is created. Each year's performance is then expressed as a
proportion of the Model Year. Finally, all 16 measures are combined
into a single numerical index.

Figure 2 shows total GDP steadily rising and the Fordham Index of
Social Health steadily declining. Since 1970, America's social health
(represented by the 16 measures) has declined from 73.8 out of a
possible 100 in 1970 to 40.6 in 1993, a fall of more than 45%. During
this time, 11 measures declined and 5 rose. The gains were seen in
infant mortality; drug abuse; high-school dropouts; poverty among those
over 65; and food-stamp coverage. The social indicators that worsened
over the same period were children in poverty; child abuse; teen
suicide; unemployment; average weekly wages; health insurance coverage;
out-of-pocket health costs for those over 65; homicide; alcohol-related
highway deaths; housing; and the gap between rich and poor.

In 1993, the most recent year for which data are available, the Fordham
Index declined 2 points from 1992, down to 40.6 out of a possible 100.
In 1993, six of the indicators --children in poverty; child abuse;
health insurance coverage; average weekly earnings; out-of-pocket
health costs for those over 65; and the gap between rich and poor --
reached their worst recorded levels.

We believe it is very important to begin to measure progress and social
health at the state and local levels.[7] If we use false measures, like
GDP, or no measures at all, we can be duped and misled by the good news
industry, which makes its living selling optimistic pap. If things are
not going well, we need to know it so we can make efforts to improve.
Whether we are discussing environment, economy, or the social fabric
that holds communities together, we need to measure what's good and
what's bad so that we can tell whether public policies are doing what
we all need them to do. Measuring progress and social health --
particularly at the local level --will allow us to think constructively
and spend our money wisely.

[In future, we would like to report on municipal, county, regional or
state efforts to measure well being or progress. If readers know of
such work going on now, we would appreciate it if they would send us
the name and phone number of someone involved, so we could call to
learn more. Phone us toll-free: 1-888-2RACHEL.]

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)


[1] Julian L. Simon, editor, THE STATE OF HUMANITY (Cambridge,
Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1995), pg. 17.

[2] John Tierney, "The Optimists Are Right," NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE
September 29, 1996, pgs. 91-95. And see REHW #504.

[3] Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich, BETRAYAL OF SCIENCE AND
(Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1996).

[4] Clifford Cobb, Ted Halstead, and Jonathan Rowe, THE GENUINE
Redefining Progress [4th Floor, One Kearny Street, San Francisco, CA
94108; Tel. 415.781.1191], September, 1995). $10.00 from Redefining

SOCIAL WELL BEING OF THE NATION (Tarrytown, N.Y.: Institute for
Innovation in Social Policy, Fordham Graduate Center, 1995). Telephone
for the Institute: (914) 332-6014.

[6] Marc L. Miringoff, "Toward a National Standard of Social Health:
The Need for Progress in Social Indicators," AMERICAN JOURNAL OF
ORTHOPSYCHIATRY Vol. 65, No. 4 (October 1995), pgs. 462-467. See also
Marc Miringoff and Marque-Luisa Miringoff, "America's Social Health:
The Nation's Need to Know," CHALLENGE (September/October 1995), pgs.

[7] The Fordham group has begun producing a similar index for the state
of Connecticut. See Marc L. Miringoff, Marque-Luisa Miringoff, and
Sandra Opdycke, THE SOCIAL STATE OF CONNECTICUT '95 (Tarrytown, N.Y.:
Institute for Innovation in Social Policy, Fordham Graduate Center,
1995). Telephone for the Institute: (914) 332-6014.

. Dollars per Person . (inflation-adjusted) . . . 18000 --
+ . . + . 16000 -- Per Capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) . .
+ . 14000 -- + . . + . 12000 -- + . . + . 10000 --
. . + + . 8000 -- + . . * * * . 6000 -- * * * * * . .
* . 4000 -- Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) * . . . 2000 --
. . | | | | | | | | | | . 0 1950 1955 1960 1965 1970 1975 1980 1985
1990 1994. Year .
Figure 1. Gross Production vs. Genuine Progress, 1950-1994. The . plus
signs (+) represent GDP, the asterisks (*) represent GPI. . See text
for the definition of these measures. Units of GDP and . GPI are 1982
dollars per capita. Basically this graph shows that, . when social and
environmental costs are taken into account (i.e., . measuring GPI), the
overall health of the economy has steadily . declined since the 1970s.
Adapted with permission from Clifford . Cobb, Ted Halstead, and
METHODOLOGY (San Francisco, . California: Redefining Progress,
September, 1995). .
AND GDP, 1970-1993 . . . Index of Total Gross Social Health
Domestic Product (defined in text) (in billions of 1987 $) . . 100
-- + 5000 . + . - -- . . + . 80 -- + Total Gross 4000 .
Domestic . - -- * + Product . . + * . 60 -- * 3000 . . - -
- * . . * . 40 -- * * * 2000 . . - -- Fordham Indicator of
Social Health . . . 20 -- 1000 . . - -- . . . 0 --
0 . | | | | | | . . 1970 1975 1980 1985 1990 1995 . . Year .
Figure 2. Fordham Index of Social Health vs. Total Gross Domestic
Product, 1970-1993. Units of GDP are billions of 1987 dollars. The plus
signs (+) represent GDP, the asterisks (*) represent the index of
social health. Basically this chart shows that, by 16 measures
combined, the "social health" of Americans has declined about 45%
during the past 20 years. Adapted from Marc L. Miringoff, 1995 INDEX OF
(Tarrytown, N.Y.: Institute for Innovation in Social Policy, Fordham
Graduate Center, 1995). Rounding errors are inevitable when a graphic
is displayed using text characters, as we have done here, because it is
impossible to place data points precisely.

Descriptor terms: good news industry; julian simon; john tierney; paul
ehrlich; anne ehrlich; quality of life indicators; measuring well
being; measuring welfare; genuine progress indicator; gpi; gross
national product; gnp; gross domestic product; gdp; national accounts;
growth; index of social health; fordham university; marc miringoff;
poverty; health care; infant mortality; suicide; homicide; food stamps;

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