Posner: Show Me the Money (and Little Else)

Many scholars are interested in new ways of measuring well-being that go beyond crude measures of income. I have thought of the UN Human Development Index as a good step in this direction, but Richard Posner has come out against it.

I agree with Posner’s critique of commensurability implicit in such a ranking, and his points about the distortions that can be caused by the “bunching” of many countries around one indicator. But if there are going to be rankings by income, I would think he would welcome alternative perspectives. Instead, he frets that the US loses out in the UNHDI because its life expectancy figures are lower than many other countries. I found this section of his critique troubling:

If a country devotes resources to improving life expectancy, it has to give up some other good. It is hard to say that the United States is making a mistake in not spending more resources on extending life expectancy; many Americans think that we spend too much on health care already. One reason (though by no means the only one) that the United States ranks only 44th in life expectancy is that our large black population has an abnormally high death rate; the average life expectancy of black male Americans is only 69. This shockingly high death rate reflects deep-seated problems of American blacks that would probably cost an enormous amount of money to solve. The political will to expend those resources does not exist. This may be a misfortune, a tragedy, or even a sin, but to use it to push the United States down in an index of human development is a political judgment, rather than anything determined by neutral social science.

Query: is the UN constrained to measure well-being only via neutral social science? Is that even possible? Well-being and development are inherently normative concepts. Their capacity to reflect a society’s “misfortunes, tragedies, or sins” is a feature, not a bug.

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