. SOCIAL HEALTH .
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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
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." (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
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. 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
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 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
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). 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 welfare.
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
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.
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
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. 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:
(National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)
 Julian L. Simon, editor, THE STATE OF HUMANITY (Cambridge,
Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1995), pg. 17.
 John Tierney, "The Optimists Are Right," NEW YORK TIMES
MAGAZINE September 29, 1996, pgs. 91-95. And see REHW #504.
 Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich, BETRAYAL OF SCIENCE AND
REASON; HOW ANTI-ENVIRONMENTAL RHETORIC ENDANGERS OUR FUTURE
(Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1996).
 Clifford Cobb, Ted Halstead, and Jonathan Rowe, THE GENUINE
PROGRESS INDICATOR; SUMMARY OF DATA AND METHODOLOGY (San
Francisco: Redefining Progress [4th Floor, One Kearny Street, San
Francisco, CA 94108; Tel. 415.781.1191], September, 1995). $10.00
from Redefining Progress.
 Marc L. Miringoff, 1995 INDEX OF SOCIAL HEALTH; MONITORING
THE 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.
 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. 19-24.
 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:
. FIGURE 1. GROSS PRODUCTION VS. GENUINE PROGRESS, 1950-1994 .
Dollars per Person .
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.
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 Jonathan Rowe, THE GENUINE PROGRESS
INDICATOR; SUMMARY OF DATA AND METHODOLOGY (San Francisco,
California: Redefining Progress, September, 1995).
. FIGURE 2 .
. FORDHAM INDEX OF SOCIAL HEALTH .
. 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 SOCIAL HEALTH; MONITORING THE SOCIAL WELL
BEING OF THE NATION (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; housing;
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--Peter Montague, Editor