The politics of indices

Over three decades the policies of “free market fundamentalism” have so solidified our country’s class structure that inter-generational progress has become a thing of the past. This basic social fact has been obscured by the corporate media in its role as mythmaker. Rather than reporting on the actual conditions of working families, economic news is limited to update on the “markets,” which take the daily temperature of the DOW and NASDAQ, and quarterly reviews of the condition of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

There are other indices available that offer a more comprehensive accounting of the socio-economic health of the nation. But they are generally ignored because they are unflattering to capitalism. These indices document the widening gap over the past 30 years between a rising GDP and the declining social health of the people, revealing in the process how the benefits of economic growth are reserved for a few.



ISP documents declining social health

University of Pennsylvania Professor Richard Estes has measured the social progress of all the countries in the world since 1970. Drawing on UN and World Bank data, Estes constructs an Index of Social Progress (ISP) which takes account of 40 different factors, including years of schooling; immunization of children; infant mortality rates; military expenditures as a percent of GDP; unemployment rates; inequality; social security; workers compensation; family allowances; and unemployment insurance.



U.S. ‘social progress’ peaked 24 years ago

What Estes has documented is that “social progress” in the United States peaked in 1980, and that the wealthiest country in the world now ranks only 27th, on a par with Poland and Slovenia. Chronic poverty, Estes reports, is the greatest threat to social progress in the America, along with sluggish economic growth, increasing unemployment, deteriorating schools and inadequate health care. (See University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work web site for details.)

Professor Marc Miringoff, director of the Institute of Innovation in Social Policy at the Fordham University, has developed an “Index of Social Health,” which is constructed from 16 indicators that measure the social well-being of the United States. The factors that make up the “ISH” include adult unemployment; poverty among those aged 65 and over; access to affordable housing; child abuse; health insurance coverage; and average weekly wages. What Miringoff’s index reveals is that for the period 1970 to 2000, the “social health” of the U.S. declined 29 percent, while the GDP increased from a little over $1 trillion to almost $10 trillion.



Stock indexes rise with savage increase in rate of exploitation

The struggle over which index captures and hold the public’s imagination is critical. It determines whose class interests are served by the government’s socio-economic policies. As long as the DOW holds sway, the interests of the top one or two percent of the population will be served, with some “trickle-down” to the next 20 or so percent. This is guaranteed by the policies that have to be pursued if the stock indexes are to continue to rise. And what lights up the markets is a policy mix that includes the export of capital; tax cuts for the wealthy; the accelerated transfer of blue collar and white collar jobs overseas; massive military spending; limited revenue sharing; large budget deficits; and privatization of Social Security, Medicare and other critical government functions. It means a savage increase in the rate of exploitation, which translates into a plummeting index of social health. This is why the popularization of the ISH and ISP is so critical. They reveal the distortions of Wall Street Week in Review, Lou Dobbs and CNBC.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.