Friday 1 February 2019

Chasing unicorns

While training as a young economist, I had to grapple with such concepts as Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which I understood as a broad measure of the monetary value of the goods and services the country produces each year. Then there was the somewhat more difficult concept of “marginal utility”, which I just about know how to distinguish from butter! And then, being a grammar school boy lacking a classical education, my economics tutor taught me a Latin phrase: “Ceteris Paribus”, which means “if all else remains unchanged/equal” – or something like that. Ceteris Paribus provides a get-out-of-jail card for the failed predictions and forecasts of economists because things rarely remain unchanged, although sometimes it seems God put economists on this planet to make weather forecasters look good!

I understand social science is soft science – it’s not quantum physics – but at least economists are trying to measure something that can be objectively quantified or monetised. However, “public health” campaigners feel no such inhibitions. Recently published research funded by the Medical Research Council sought to quantify how even moderate drinking might reduce “quality of life” and put a monetary value on it – apparently drinking a bottle of wine a week costs £2,400 a year in lost quality of life, while one pint of beer a week equates to £610 a year in lost quality of life.

The research analysed the health, wealth and happiness of 141,000 British drinkers aged 37 to 73 and compared alcohol’s benefits, such as making people feel happy or sociable, with the higher risk of depression, insomnia and cognitive decline. 

But this is a curious comparison. In real life people make all kinds of trade-offs between short-term pleasures and long-term risks, usually on the basis the short-term pleasure is very real and very “now”, whereas the increase in risk is often very small and may or may not occur some time in the future. Or, to put it another way: “It won’t happen to me.” Usually, statistically, they are right. How can you compare the actuality of a benefit to the increased risk of a cost?

When scientists ignore the vast amount of scientific evidence that links moderate alcohol consumption to greater longevity – and less risk of heart disease and dementia compared with life-long abstainers – and abandon what can be sensibly quantified and try to monetise a concept as subjective as “quality of life”, you know they’ve abandoned science and are chasing unicorns.

They are not alone in this pseudo-scientific endeavour. The annual Halifax Quality Of Life survey has just been published and tells us Orkney is the best place to live in the UK. I like sheep, but not that much. The survey used to say various places in southern England were the most desirable places to live so Orkney’s rise to prominence is recent. About 22,000 people live in Orkney and its population is in long-term decline. Millions of people live in southern England and its population is growing. 

Pause for thought. GDP may be a rough and ready way of measuring how well the economy is performing but at least it’s measuring something objective. “Quality of life” is an entirely subjective concept and reflects the values of campaigners who use the cloak of science to mask their lifestyle activist intentions.

There are a lot of them doing it. There is the Genuine Progress Indicator, which measures income inequality and suggests if it is growing, a place is getting poorer. Some people will agree with this conclusion and some will disagree but it’s an implicit value judgement that tilts the science. Then there’s the Gross National Happiness Index, which was pioneered by the royal family of Bhutan – clearly experts in equitable development and cultural diversity. 

And isn’t it comforting to know The Lancet is getting in on the act? This formerly reputable medical journal has become a loony-left publication and a mouthpiece for some of the country’s worst lifestyle zealots. The Lancet Commission On Obesity recently published a 56-page report on how to solve the obesity crisis and save the planet – so no lack of ambition! The report is a diatribe against Big Food and declares we should all become vegans but, if we must eat meat or eggs, it should be in tiny amounts.

Their enemy is Big Food, which is a surrogate term for capitalism, and their remedy is more state control, higher taxes and more bans. Not only that, they’d like a hand-out from the taxpayer to fund their lobbying of the World Health Organisation to enshrine their puritanical intentions into a Global Treaty On Food.

Driving to work this morning I listened to the Queen song “Flash”, which featured in the film Flash Gordon. In the song the heroine breathlessly says: “Flash, I love you, but we’ve only got 14 hours to save the earth!” Isn’t this essentially the unifying theme of all these unicorn-chasers – moral salvation lies in abstaining from pleasure – and in the process you’ll improve your quality of life and save the planet. Isn’t that nice?

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