Last May, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern released a budget to improve the “wellbeing” of its citizens rather than focusing on productivity and GDP growth. And not so coincidentally, New Zealand has one of the best coronavirus outcomes of any democracy in the world. Perhaps this provides a model for the world to make economic health cohere with health for all life.
To improve wellbeing, Ardern emphasized goals that focus on care for people and planet. Goals included community and cultural connection as well as intergenerational equity. Under the policy, new spending had to focus on one of five priorities: improving mental health, reducing child poverty, addressing inequalities of Indigenous peoples, thriving in a digital age, and transitioning to a low-emission economy.
While New Zealand isn’t the only country to float the idea of wellbeing over income, it is the first country to make it a reality. Guided by this philosophy, New Zealand is not in a rush to open its economy even as headlines swirl decrying a “stock market crash,” or a “recession worse than 2008-09.” Is Ardern’s example wise? Can we build upon it to further improve life after COVID?
New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has deprioritized “growth” as an economic goal in favour of improving wellbeing. Her compatriots seem to like it: her personal approval rating is 65%. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Health and the economy
In the postwar capitalist framework, economic “health” became equated to income growth, price stability and full employment. There are increasingly serious pitfalls to thinking of “health” as a capitalist metaphor rather than a desirable end goal. Using GDP and stock market values as measures of overall economic health made sense in the postwar era, when growth was necessary to improve human wellbeing by raising material living standards.
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