Measurements are what we use to track success, failure, progress and other parts of our life. The usefulness of a measurement is dependent on choosing the right way to measure an item, activity or event. Using a ruler to weight a piece of paper  sounds nonsensical if we report “This piece of paper weighs 8.5 inches by 11 inches!”. We expect to hear “The piece of paper weighs .16 ounces” or “The paper weighs 4.536 grams”.

A white slide rule on a black background

However, the type of measurement to use isn’t always obvious. I read of a story of the Soviet Union and their five year plans for every aspect of their economy. As part of the plan they would define a measurement of success that had to be met. For the steel industry they set a goal of manufacturing so many tons of steel a year. Only one measurement was set, the tonnage, and not the size or quantity of steel delivered. If a steel foundry was able to generate a steel plate that weighed the amount for that year, they would have met their goal.

The problem is that when using steel, different sizes can make a difference in how or easy it is to manufacture other objects. In order to meet the demands as quickly as possible, steel manufacturers in the Soviet Union chose to manufacture large plates, suitable for building large ships and large manufacturing equipment. But when automotive manufacturers received these huge steel plates, they had to spend extra time to cut them down. By using only one measurement for gauging success, it neglected to look at a larger picture.

Close up of two air pressure tank gauges, one for the pressure in the tank, the other for the pressure going out.

When looking at this example, it can be easy to see the problem and believe we would choose a better way to measure success. But our bias can get  in our way when we attempt to critique our culture’s measurements.  In the US, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is a measure of the production of goods and services for a county. This measurement is used to guide policy and economic decisions. The measurement is made up of many different items and services, so it does work to look at a larger picture. The problem is how products and services are chosen for measurement.  One of the services not covered by GDP is unpaid service in the home, such as child rearing, and care of the elderly. These are important functions but unpaid labor at home has not been calculated the services and value of a country. It is taken as a free service and taken for granted. The only items are measured are those that involve the exchange of money, unpaid labor that contributes to the health of the country.

The GDP only measures economic activity. There is an implicit assumption that economic activity as a single measure is sufficient to measure the health of a country. Yet that seems like trying to measure a persons health by only measuring a single thing. What would we think if a doctor only looked at our age and didn’t look at other things like blood pressure, blood sugar, and chronic conditions. We have come to recognize that our health can be measured in multiple ways and the aggregate of those measurements should be used to review our physical, mental and emotional health.

A collection of metal measuring cups and tablespoons for cooking

It seems like we need additional measures for a country’s health that are considered just as important as the GDP. Other factors, such as education level of the citizens, well being, longevity and other factors are measured but they don’t seem to receive as much coverage, unless some event, such as a pandemic, causes declines in an area. There is awareness that we need to better in measuring our success.  We have an opportunity to review our measurements and continue with our journey to improve everyone’s lives, perhaps we will do better after our latest crisis.

Pictures by J.T. Harpster. Prints of his photos can be purchased at our Redbubble shop.

Help support our work on our Patreon page.