The Podium | Ira A. Jackson and Philip J. Edmundson

A new way to measure our progress

Globe archives

“Having no other mines to work, Massachusetts has mined into the human intellect; and, from its limitless resources, she has won more sustaining and enduring prosperity and happiness than if she had been founded on a stratification of silver and gold, reaching deeper down than geology has yet penetrated.” — Horace Mann, 1846

For generations Massachusetts has aimed to build a strong and vibrant economy that creates opportunity and broadly shared, sustainable prosperity. How are we doing? We don’t really know because we don’t have good systems for measuring. Our major measure of economic progress is the gross domestic product. Almost 50 years ago Robert Kennedy described the problems with this measure.


“GDP counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. Yet GDP does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy or their play . . . or the beauty of our poetry. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

It also fails to measure whether our progress is sustainable and whether economic progress is translating into better lives for most of our people.

We know that in a lot of specific ways Massachusetts has an enviable state economy. The Greater Boston region in particular is viewed as a global leader in terms of knowledge-driven innovation and as a world-class leader in higher education, life sciences, health care, and financial services. Venture capitalists have observed that the area around MIT in Kendall Square may be the “smartest square mile on the planet.” Others have concluded that if Massachusetts was a nation instead of a state, it would be one of the most innovative and successful economy in the world.


But we also know that we fall short of our goals in many ways. More than one in five of our children live in poverty, wages have been stagnant for most of our people, and our coastline is highly vulnerable to storm surges and other threats from global warming.

Fortunately, there is a growing movement to develop better, more intelligent, and more balanced ways of measuring progress. With a new governor taking office in January, we think the time is right for adopting a new set of metrics from which we can establish a baseline of where we find ourselves and how we want to measure our progress going forward. We have the opportunity in Massachusetts to develop and adopt new measures for a new economy, to create challenging new metrics of progress, and to use these new standards to help guide us toward a future of more sustainable and equitable progress.

One of the most promising new methods of accounting for economic, environmental, and social progress is called GPI — or The Genuine Progress Indicator. The GPI builds on the Measure of Economic Welfare developed by William Nordhaus and Nobel laureate James Tobin in the 1970s. It serves as a well-being-adjusted growth measure, accounting for how broadly prosperity is shared, what impact our economy has on our quality of life, and what price our children will pay in the future for benefits that we receive today.


The good news is that measured by this new scorecard, Massachusetts remains a national leader. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that Massachusetts has a human capital focused high-growth economy and that state policies have generally been attentive to environmental costs that many other states have ignored. But the sobering news is that while our Gross State Product has grown rapidly over the past four decades, our GPI has not.

Growing income inequality in Massachusetts is a major factor in holding down our GPI as is the cost of unemployment and underemployment. Nonrenewable energy depletion also imposes a stiff cost, although less than in most states. Massachusetts has been leading the way in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the percentage of our population with a bachelor’s degree or higher hit an all-time high in 2012 of 39.9 percent.

Much more work needs to be done to refine these numbers and to come up with a snapshot of genuine progress in Massachusetts that is up-to-date, comprehensive and well understood. We propose that we call this effort MassProgress and that we build it into the way we evaluate state policy and account for the state budget going forward.

Building upon our strong state economy, we need to start measuring success in a way that puts people first and helps us to ensure that we can sustain success in a way that improves the lives of every citizen of the Commonwealth.

Ira A. Jackson is dean of the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at UMass Boston. Philip J. Edmundson is chairman and CEO of William Gallagher Associates and board chair of the Alliance for Business Leadership.