The People’s DOW

(August 16th, 2008)

The following was published in the Murfreesboro Pulse.

Every day after work, I rush to my car so I can catch the headlines on NPR’s All Things Considered.  Played every half hour, this five to seven minute wrap-up of the day’s important events has become a staple in my routine.

Yet after years of thinking I was paying close attention to the information coming out of my speakers, a question occurred to me.  Why does the news always end with how the Dow closed for the day?  Who exactly is this for?

Economists like to boast that almost half of American households own stock.  But when you take into consideration that most of this “ownership” takes the form of 401(k) retirement plans and, for the typical household, accounts for less money than it would cost to buy a new car, it quickly becomes apparent that the Dow is not all that important to the average person.  On the other hand, the vast majority of stocks are owned by about five percent of the population, with a huge chunk actually going to the mega-wealthy top one percent.

So again, who is this daily dose of the Dow meant to impress?  You only have to look at the numbers to start throwing around clichés.  In August of 1982 the Dow was in the high 700’s.  Twenty five years later, it had jumped to the 14,000 mark.  And that means that the rich got way richer.  On the other hand, real wages for the average household, those wages adjusted for inflation, have been stagnant if not declining over the same period.

All of which has got me wondering, “Where’s our Dow?  Where’s the indicator for how well we’re doing?”

I’d like to propose a challenge for the nation’s economists.  If the average person really does matter, then give them some real economic measure of their situation.

We could call it the People’s Dow, and the D-O-W could stand for the Development of Our World.

Instead of hearing, “Better than expected earnings at Intel sparked activity in the tech sector today sending the Dow up twenty two points.”  We might hear, “Health Insurance premiums rose again this year by 15 percent sending the People’s Dow down 118 points.”

Indeed a lot of the legwork for such a project has already been done.  From the Human Development Index to the Human Poverty Index, the United Nations Development Programme puts out a Human Development Report each year.  National Human Development Reports already exist, and the Genuine Progress Indicator has been designed to incorporate green economics as well.

Sure, it wouldn’t be an exact science, but neither is the Dow.  The Dow only measures 30 corporations.  The People’s Dow would take into account hundreds of reports on real life factors like infant mortality, life expectancy, morbidity, wages, unemployment, child welfare, health insurance, literacy and school enrollment, crime rates, statistics concerning community and family, standards of living, sustainability of resources, even down to the relative levels of happiness measured in the World Values Survey.

And since these reports are released at different times throughout the year, the People’s Dow, like the regular Dow, would constantly be changing.

Just as weight is given in the regular Dow to higher priced stocks, certain reports would weigh more heavily in calculating the People’s Dow.

Of course I’m just proposing this.  I have no idea who is going to devise it, who’s going to maintain it, or who’s going to fund it.

But surely it’s a worthy project.  If the Dow is repeated daily for about five percent of the population, don’t the rest of us 95 percent deserve our own Dow?

Do we matter or do our economists only exist to serve the top five percent?  When they refer to the economy, are they really just referring to a small minority of the population?  And if so, what are we supposed to think every half hour the headlines end with how the Dow closed for the day?

So what do you say, NPR?  Will you take up my challenge and put out the call?  Can we look forward to hearing if the People’s Dow rose or fell in our list of the day’s most important events?

Surely the brightest of our economic minds could tackle this with ease.

The question is, “Will they?”