In this post, I would like to consider a hypothetical national dashboard comprising essential metrics that measure the economy, human well-being, and long-term progress. It is hypothetical because, although all these metrics are measured today, not all of them receive equal attention in the government and the media.
As someone who has studied economics and business and spent over a decade working in the private sector, I’ve been long dismayed by how little focus there is on numbers in government and media reporting. To the extent politicians focus on numbers, they typically pick the ones that support their narrative and seem relevant to this week’s news cycle.¹
I wonder if there’s a better way. What if we reversed the order? What if we came together as a society and determined (1) what areas we would most like to improve, (2) the best way to measure the progress, and (3) the best way to report on it and future plans? What if we then used this framework to guide public conversation, media reporting, and perhaps even some White House press briefings?
The idea is not new, of course. And many people have already tried to popularize it. Recently, Andrew Young got many people excited when he proposed the idea of the American scorecard and — taking the idea to the extreme — suggested that the president use PowerPoint to report on progress.
So what’s the problem?
The problem isn’t as much that we aren’t measuring things.² The problem is threefold:
First, we might want to agree on what human progress is. And since this conversation can get rather complicated and heated quickly, it might make sense to focus on things things that people universally value. Here is a relevant quote from Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now:
“What is progress? You might think that the question is so subjective and culturally relative as to be forever unanswerable. In fact, it’s one of the easier questions to answer. Most people agree that life is better than death. Health is better than sickness. Sustenance is better than hunger. Abundance is better than poverty. Peace is better than war. Safety is better than danger. Freedom is better than tyranny. Equal rights are better than bigotry and discrimination. Literacy is better than illiteracy. Knowledge is better than ignorance. Intelligence is better than dull-wittedness. Happiness is better than misery. Opportunities to enjoy family, friends, culture, and nature are better than drudgery and monotony. All these things can be measured. If they have increased over time, that is progress.”
It’s true that “not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts”. But we can still count most things that matter.
Imagine a regularly updated dashboard that shows 10 to 20 metrics that are widely viewed as important:
I think for the idea to gain wide adoption in a given country, people would need to collectively answer several questions. When there’s consensus, there’s a chance to create accountability.
Here are just a few to ponder:
One danger of looking at lagging indicators only is that they might not be actionable. And we might not take action necessary to ensure long-term progress. So we should also be asking ourselves what upstream drivers of progress are. In other words, we should consider leading indicators as well.
What drives human progress is a matter of ongoing debate, but let’s assume that the following three are at least a major part of the picture:
These three create a strong virtuous circle. More talented people → more foundational knowledge → more prosperity.
With all that in mind, I decided to do a fun thought exercise and come up with a possible set of metrics that could capture how we’re doing at the national level.
For each metric report on:
So what could this hypothetical dashboard look like for the US in 2021? Let’s take a snapshot of these metrics.
Source: International Monetary Fund, 2020
The GDP metric has many problems. Not all goods and services are equally valuable to humankind. However, it can be a good proxy and starting point. We know that growth, in itself, has been historically important for getting people out of the zero-sum game mindset. There have also been multiple attempts to account for the limitations of this metric.
Looking at median numbers should help us partially account for inequality.
Source: OECD Statistics
An important question here is what constitutes “net”. What should we adjust for?
For example, if we want to create the right incentives to increase everyone’s prosperity, should we subtract rent payments, loan payments, and healthcare expenditures — given how much is spent on these three and given the differences among countries?
In other words, does a person who earns a post-tax income of $100K but spends $80 on rent, student loan payments, health insurance, and medical bills, really have $100K in disposable income?
Source: Credit Suisse’s annual Global Wealth Databook, 2019
I also wonder about the best way to adjust these numbers for the cost of living. Doing this might be more tricky than it might seem given the differences in how much different goods and services cost in various countries and in different regions/states.
For example, healthcare is notoriously expensive in the US and arguably more important than some other services and goods. In fact, healthcare, education, and housing — three things that people tend to value, all get more expensive despite the inflation rate staying relatively low:
Source: Aei.org and Bls.org
US life expectancy:
Source: United Nations
Source: World Health Organization
Healthy life expectancy is life expectancy minus years of living with disability.
Top 30 countries:
Source: World Health Organization, 2019
In my opinion, the biggest challenge in tracking metrics such as life expectancy and other measures of well-being is that it is difficult to increase them rapidly. It may be more productive to ask questions such as "Where should we invest today to achieve the greatest improvement in 10 years?" But this timeframe does not align well with four-year terms. However, this issue can be resolved. For instance, long-term plans that include "fail fast" types of validation and testing can be developed.
Source: World Happiness Report, 2021
I wasn’t able to find a chart showing how the US score reported by WHR has changed over time, but Gallup is reporting a similar metric:
Source: Pew Research
Top 30 countries by homicide rate:
Many countries are simply too small, so the list is noisy.
The top list looks noisy — likely due to underreporting.
This one is tricky to measure, just like healthcare quality. But there have been attempts. This is one of them:
It’s not easy to find a chart showing how the US scores and ranking have changed over time.
Another thing to consider is the universities. The US is dominating the list of best universities in the world, but there is not an easy way to quantify that dominance and track it over time. Perhaps citations in the relevant fields (e.g. STEM) can be considered as a proxy?
Total R&D funded by the US government (red line). It might be better to show it as a percentage of GDP:
Business-funded R&D is great, but it cannot replace government funding. Businesses and venture capital funds are quite risk-verse. Despite what VCs might claim, many may be reluctant to invest in technologies with long-term time horizons and unclear payoffs.
As % of GDP by country:
Here is an imperfect proxy. It might also make sense to consider new business formation in certain sectors, e.g. technology.
Here are some additional metrics I would consider:
This post was in a way US-centric. I believe developing a framework for global reporting might be even more important than driving accountability and focus on the national level. This is because so many countries are still lagging in terms of many of these metrics, but also in terms of governments’ accountability. Sustainable Development Goals are great but they focus more on the current problems and may miss long-term opportunities.
Beyond this, we should also consider system-level metrics in addition to national ones. For example, global mobility, international trade, global trust, and other ways to measure global collaboration.
But let’s get back to the idea of the national dashboard…
What else would you like the government to regularly report on and present plans for?
Where would this approach fail?
How would you improve it?
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 And even when there is a continuous focus on a set of numbers, it’s often on seemingly arbitrary numbers. For instance, even the Wall Street Journal website still seems to suggest that performance of 30 arbitrarily selected companies is the most important metric to focus on, and that the most meaningful time interval to consider is 24 hours.
 There is also amazing Our World in Data founded by Max Roser, a website that aggregates important metrics from multiple sources and shows them in a user-friendly way. And there are many government agencies and independent organizations doing analysis and reporting on all kinds of metrics.
Originally published on Max's Two Cents on April 14, 2021.
You may find the organisation/network Social Progress Imperative interesting. This network is well established and has done a lot of thinking on similar issues.
Thank you, I'll check it out!
I like it. I'd love to pair it with a prediction market so we can find out who best understands what drives these metrics