zondag 20 mei 2012

The gyspy woman knows

Frank just gave me Mis-measuring our lives, why GDP doesn’t add up, which is a report by the commission on the measurement of economic performance and social progress, installed by former president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy. The commission was headed by two Nobel prize winners Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen and by the French economist Jean-Paul Fitoussi. The report dates from September 2009.

‘Read the foreword by Nicolas Sarkozy,’ Frank urged me. ‘It is beautiful and inspiring, just like the constitution of the EU. Why didn’t he live up to it?
I read the nine pages with increasing astonishment. ‘I hold a firm belief’, the then president of France starts his passionate plea, ‘We will not change our behavior unless we change the ways we measure our economic performance.’ Mr Sarkozy arguments that the way we measure economic growth no longer represents the reality of people’s lives. ‘If leisure has no accounting value because it is essentially filled with nonmarket activities such as sports and culture, this means that we are putting the criterion of high productivity above that of the realization of human potential, contrary to the humanist values that we proclaim. Who could imagine that this won’t have consequences?
[…] ‘if we count activities that lengthen the distance between home and work and increase insecurity and exclusion as positive contributions to progress; if ever-growing nervous tension, stress, and anxiety undermine society, and the ever-greater resources devoted to fighting their effects are included in economic growth – if we do all this, then what, concretely, is left of our notion of progress?’

The bell rings. A gypsy woman – she must be over sixty years old - stands before my front door. She is at least two feet smaller than I am. At her side is a children’s carrier, filled with plastic gloves for cleaning, vegetables, perfumes and other this and thats. The woman looks up to me with watery brown eyes that once must have shone. From where I stand, I can see her hair needs dying. I tower above her wearing an expensive dress given to me the day before by my mother in law. It is the kind of dress I would have loved at first sight but never would imagine buying. But my mother in law did. She bought it and today I am wearing it, while the poor woman at my doorstep is telling me her story.
I do not listen to her words because I know the words. These are the words of a beggar. She puts in a little lie to gain empathy. She talks about children in distress whose school burned down. She knows that kids soften people’s hearts. She needs money urgently. Even though she doesn’t explain her real pain with words, she explains it by ringing my bell and asking me to buy any of her goods, making up a story that will transfer my money into her pocket.

I tell her I don’t have money either while leaning against the doorpost in my too expensive dress. She smiles. Then she looks up to the sky greying with rainclouds and the old woman blesses me – may God give me Good Health and Happiness - and she moves on, to ring the next bell. I feel some itching.

Mr Sarkozy calls the discrepancy between what is in the statistics of economists and repeated over and over by country leaders and politicians and what is the reality for many a civilian, one of the reasons why people feel deceived by policymakers and politicians: ‘Who could fail to understand why those who had lost their home, their job, their pension, would feel deceived?’

He makes a strong plea for what is called the capability approach that drastically changes the ways we think. The capability approach views the success of society in terms of individual wellbeing and freedom. It includes environmental issues that threaten health or happiness.

The gypsy lady walks down the street. She is getting tired. Rain pours down, wetting her goods, soaking her clothes. She starts to cough. Maybe she’ll take the bus instead of walking home, she ponders. But the bus costs €3 and that will set her back ten percent of what she earned today, which was just enough to buy her grandson new football shoes for his birthday. ‘Sports are important for a child,’ she thinks.


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