Before the Nobel prize for economics was announced on Monday, there were a number of reports that Angus Deaton, economics professor at Princeton University, might get it for his research on what makes people happy. In India to take part in the OECD Word Forum, he talks to Indivjal Dhasmana on some of these issues. Edited excerpts:
Does it disturb you that you didn't get the Nobel prize?
I think it is a sense of relief. My wife sent me an e-mail yesterday afternoon, saying we are free. I always understood that there was a very small chance for everybody because they had a huge list of people, all of whom are worthy. But, the press has made it a huge thing. This is a thing of the past because I knew this was not going to happen.
You have been associated with a measurement for happiness. Do you really believe these kinds of subjective things can be measured?
We can measure something for sure. We can ask people questions about happiness. We can do what my colleagues and I are going to do, which is to try to figure out what people were thinking when they answered those questions. The question is not whether you are going to measure these things but what is it that you can measure. What are you getting when you ask people how happy they are? I can ask ‘in days so far, was there something that made you really happy?’ That is a concrete question and you might get a very good answer.
Will this help policy making as well?
I am not sure whether that is very useful for policy. Poor people often experience lots of happiness. That does not stop them being poor. Amartya Sen has written very eloquently about this and I will agree with a lot of what he says. You have to be very careful in using these measurements. Especially in places like India, where many people are living in terrible deprivation, and if you find they manage to be happy, that would not diminish their deprivation. But I think there is some immortal life than (just) income. Trying to measure some of these things is a very important thing to do and that is what this conference is about.
The theme of this conference is looking beyond GDP for wellbeing. Do you really think it is possible to look beyond GDP, particularly in a society as heterogeneous as India?
We can certainly go beyond GDP. First of all, GDP could be a lot better. Let us take an example of an earthquake. It comes, destroys lots of stuff, you have to repair it, this increases GDP. But GDP has not really increased at all. Also, GDP is not very good at telling you who gets what. It tells you what the total is but is completely indifferent to whether one man gets it all or it is equally shared.
Does this whole debate over looking beyond GDP hold more relevance at this time of crisis in the Euro zone?
That worries me a bit. I am worried if these happiness measures are not very good measures, and I think some of these are not. Then, people are hurt by the financial crisis and we say, don't worry, you are happy. I don't think that is a very good way to go. And, I think it is an agenda of some people. I don't think it is part of the OECD agenda. It's also not an agenda of this conference. But some politicians would like to distract attention.
You have been associated with India on poverty issues. What is your take on the recent controversy over the Planning Commission's definition of the poverty line?
This controversy erupted after I had finished my work in India. The point is hundreds of millions of people in India are living on less than the poverty line that the Planning Commission gave. So, the people who said the lines were ridiculous because you can't live on those, they are just wrong and should look at hundreds of millions of Indians living on less than that. One should not lose sight of that. I don't think that is given sufficient recognition in that debate.