A column in the Wall Street Journal mocks President Sarkozy for suggesting that gross domestic product, which is how economic growth is measured, be changed to include subjective variables such as happiness. This is a transparent attempt to paper over France’s sluggish economic performance. Happiness is important, of course, but it comes about by allowing people to make voluntary choices in a free society, not by creating involuntary leisure with stifling tax rates and welfare dependency:
French President Nicolas Sarkozy recently said he wanted the nations of the world to stop using GDP, or gross domestic product, as the main measure of their economic performance. He wants them instead to work up another metric that takes into account not only economic production but such things as environmental quality and even time not spent in traffic—a sort of gross national satisfaction index. France has excellent reason to suppress GDP statistics. Since 1982, among developed nations, France has been a clear laggard in GDP growth. In the quarter century following 1982, France’s GDP growth rate was a mere 2.1% per year in comparison to the U.S.’s 3.3%. Thus the U.S. grew at more than a 50% premium to France per year during that span. When the quarter century elapsed, Americans were one-third richer than the French. …countries of “old Europe” such as France and Italy that were content to stand pat with an overregulated private sector and tax rates well above 50% were left in the dust. In 2003, as the Iraq war got going, France complained that the U.S. was the world’s “hyperpower.” Yet France itself was partly responsible for this fate. …If Mr. Sarkozy’s statisticians ever come up with their new economic index, they should be sure it includes leisure time—because that is one thing the French economy excels at producing. In 2004, the year he won the Nobel Prize, economist Edward Prescott asked, in the title of a journal article, “Why Do Americans Work So Much More Than Europeans?” The answer, he found, was tax rates. Tax rates had fallen so much in the U.S. by that year that the American workforce couldn’t wait to get on the job—or start a business—because you got to keep so much of what you earned. In contrast, high and progressive French taxes left over from the 1970s lured people away from work, especially as they started doing well. So people came to take seven-hour days and six-week vacations, as well as not show any particular interest in striking out on their own in a work-intensive small business. The oldest and most pathetic trick in the book when you lose a contest is to try to move the goal posts. GDP statistics of the past quarter century have shamed France but flattered the U.S., Britain and East Asia. Mr. Sarkozy’s gambit to paper over this real difference will be lucky to find any takers.