Measuring fun

By Felix Salmon
June 25, 2009

Tyler Cowen raises more questions than he answers in Fast Company:

The traditional gauge of economic success is profit, but over time we’ll find that such statistics as measures of GDP tell us less and less about broader efforts to improve human well-being. Much of the Web’s value is experienced at the personal level and does not show up in productivity numbers. Buying $2 worth of bananas boosts GDP; having $20 worth of fun on the Web does not. And this effect is a big one. Each day more enjoyment, more social connection, and, indeed, more contemplation are produced on the Web than had been imagined even 10 years ago. But how do we measure those things?

This is not necessarily new. Having $20 worth of fun by reading a library book, or running down a hill, or visiting the Tate Gallery, doesn’t boost GDP much either. So I guess my question for Tyler is this: are you saying that the web has increased the amount of fun that people can have without spending money, or at least has increased the nation’s aggregate fun-to-spending ratio? Are you saying that the correlation between aggregate fun and GDP used to be stronger than it is now, thanks to the advent of the web? And if so, are you implying that policymakers should be concentrating on new aggregates, such as some kind of Gross National Happiness measure, since GDP is proving an increasingly bad proxy for such things?

Of course, determining whether the fun-to-GDP ratio is improving requires coming up with some independently quantifiable measure of aggregate fun, which seems pretty hard. Maybe as an interim measure, before we get there, we should start thinking about Joe Stiglitz’s concept of green net national product. Maybe that would be more correlated to fun than GDP.

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