Are We Having Fun Yet?

When marriage counselor Diane Medved went house hunting last summer, she discovered a disturbing trend. Searching through newspaper classified ads, Medved found ad after ad featuring the line, "Owners motivated to sell: Divorce pending." As a marriage counselor, Medved knows divorce is a tragedy for any family. But the ads reminded her of a grim irony of modern life: Divorce is actually good for the economy. Every time a marriage breaks down, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) jumps up. Consider what happens when a couple separates. One spouse leaves and buys or rents another home. The GDP jumps. The couple hires two divorce lawyers. The GDP climbs again. The wife often has to find a job. Another lurch in the GDP. All of these activities represent an increase in economic activity. As one Chicago realtor put it, "Divorce is a big part of our business. It means one [home] to sell and sometimes two to buy." In other words, the Gross Domestic Product, which policymakers take as an indicator of our national well-being, is actually measuring, in part, our social breakdown. Consider crime. Rising crime has led to a crime prevention industry grossing 65 billion dollars a year. The GDP considers this a huge economic plus. Then there's the cost of repairing homes and businesses ravaged by crime. Another plus in the GDP. No one likes pollution, but it shows up on the GDP as a gain, not only once, but twice: first when a factory spends money on production that creates the pollution, then again when the nation has to spend money cleaning up the mess. As one observer put it, "By the curious standard of the GDP, the nation's economic hero is a terminal cancer patient . . . going through a costly divorce." Our policymakers tend to use the GDP as a measure of progress and well-being. But if we make the sheer exchange of money the measure of our prosperity, we'll be lulled into a false sense of national well-being. What's worse, our lawmakers may take a rising GDP as a sign that their policies are working--and they'll continue to enact policies that may be socially destructive, leading to more divorce, crime, and other social pathologies. During the last election, analysts kept asking, "If the economy is up, why are people down?" Here's the answer: Economic growth is partly due to social breakdown. Rising economic indicators are partly a measure of our misery. Some policymakers are looking for a more realistic measure of our national well-being. A public policy institute called Redefining Progress has developed a measure it calls "the Genuine Progress Indicator." This improved indicator factors in the social costs of things like divorce, crime, and pollution. The policy analysts at Redefining Progress are on the right track. We ought to support efforts to develop a guide for lawmakers that distinguishes between different kinds of financial transactions and doesn't label all of them "progress." We have to come up with a better way to measure our economic health--one that reminds us that when we ignore God's laws, we often pay a very high price.  


Chuck Colson


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