Kitz can’t fix the economy? Don’t worry, be happy!

by Allen Alley

Since 1995 Oregonians have been getting poorer relative to other Americans. We have slipped in state personal income ranking, from 22nd to 32nd.

Was it a “Portlandia” script or a news article? The Oregonian’s April 17 front-page story on Gov. John Kitzhaber and Cylvia Hayes, who spent three hours in a class to learn how to construct a happiness index, could have been either one. This happiness index, promoted by a Portland State University professor, purports to give a more accurate picture of economic health than the value of all goods and services produced, also known as gross domestic product (GDP).

The happiness index, or genuine progress indicator (GPI), was promoted at a recent United Nations summit meeting on happiness and originated in that bastion of economic energy Bhutan. The Kingdom of Bhutan is a tiny Himalayan country with a GDP per person of $2,600. Bhutan’s GDP ranks 129th in the world with other economic powerhouses such as Bolivia, Sri Lanka and Mongolia. In perspective, the U.S. GDP per person is 18 times higher than Bhutan.

Is the governor really going to model our economy after a Third World country? Are we giving up trying to measure ourselves by the economic measures of successful nations and instead partner with the Bhutanese and the U.N. to just make up our own happiness index? Even the writers from “Portlandia” could not have conceived of this plot twist.

A trip to Taiwan in 1982 proved to me that economic prosperity creates happiness and a cleaner environment. At the time, the streets of Taipei looked like a scene from “Blade Runner.” Acid rain etched the buildings and stripped the paint off cars and signs. Swarms of smoke-belching, dilapidated scooters were the transportation mode of choice. It seemed that Taiwan might sink into the ocean under the weight of the detritus of society, and all that would be left would be an oil slick and plastic-foam packing worms. Then an amazing thing happened: Taiwan became prosperous. Today the GDP per person of Taipei is second only to Tokyo in Asia and is higher than that of Hong Kong, Singapore and Seoul.

Once the Taiwanese became economically prosperous, they did not want to live in squalor. They had the community wealth to clean up their environment, and they did. Oregon’s economic report card is apparently so stubbornly awful that rather than creating an environment where prosperity can flourish, Kitzhaber is going to change the grading system. Now our economic F will be waved away, because we try really hard and have nice parks.

Global economic competition is brutal. There are no bonus points for effort or style. You either succeed or fail, and lately Oregon has been failing.

Since 1995 Oregonians have been getting poorer relative to other Americans. We have slipped in state personal income ranking, from 22nd to 32nd. At the same time our neighbor to the north, Washington, rose from 16th to 13th. In 1995 an Oregonian earned $730 less than the average American in personal income; today we are $3,700 behind. So either we have to have significantly higher taxes or settle for inferior schools, roads and public safety. We cannot fill potholes with happiness.

Gov. Kitzhaber, we need to embrace GDP and rededicate ourselves to creating an environment where it actually increases. We must maximize access to the assets that make Oregon a potentially great place to build prosperity. Open and expand our ports. Use our natural resources. Go out and actively promote Oregon timber as the greenest building product on Earth. Keep power rates low. Manage the Columbia River to extract more economic value for Oregon. Embrace hydropower as the renewable, carbon-dioxide-free source of clean energy that it is. Create an environment where we feel our state is a partner in prosperity, not an impediment.

It’s difficult to attain long-term happiness without some measure of security and prosperity. Gone are the days when a barter economy could provide all of the goods and services we need. Besides, much of the capital created in Oregon comes from trade with other states and nations. Happiness is a result, not a thing that can be traded. Oregonians cannot pay their mortgage with moonbeams, and even the governor is unlikely to persuade the public employee unions to accept rainbows rather than raises.

Allen Alley is chairman of the Oregon Republican Party.