Economists Use Changes in Gdp to Measure
In truth, “Gdp measures everything,” as Senator Robert Kennedy famously said, “except that which makes life worthwhile.” The number does non measure health, education, equality of opportunity, the state of the surroundings or many other indicators of the quality of life. It does non even mensurate crucial aspects of the economy such as its sustainability: whether or not it is headed for a crash. What we measure matters, though, because it guides what we do. Americans got an inkling of this causal connection during the Vietnam War, with the military machine’s emphasis on “body counts”: the weekly tabulation of the number of enemy soldiers killed. Reliance on this morbid metric led U.S. forces to undertake operations that had no purpose except to raise the body count. Like a boozer looking for his keys under the lamppost (because that is where the low-cal is), the emphasis on trunk counts kept usa from understanding the bigger picture: the slaughter was inducing more Vietnamese people to join the Viet Cong than U.S. forces were killing.
Now a different body count—that from COVID-19—is proving to be a horribly skillful measure of societal performance. Information technology has little correlation with GDP. The U.S. is the richest country in the world, with a Gdp of more than than $xx trillion in 2019, a figure that suggested we had a highly efficient economic engine, a racing car that could outperform any other. Merely the U.Due south. has recorded more than 600,000 deaths, whereas Vietnam, with a Gross domestic product of $262 billion (and a mere 4 per centum of U.S. GDP per capita), has had fewer than 500 to engagement. In the race to relieve lives, this less prosperous country has browbeaten united states handily.
In fact, the American economic system is more like an ordinary motorcar whose owner saved on gas by removing the spare tire, which was fine until he got a flat. And what I phone call “GDP thinking”—seeking to boost GDP in the misplaced expectation that that solitary would enhance well-being—led united states to this predicament. An economic system that uses its resources more efficiently in the short term has college Gross domestic product in that quarter or year. Seeking to maximize that macroeconomic mensurate translates, at a microeconomic level, to each business cutting costs to attain the highest possible short-term profits. But such a myopic focus necessarily compromises the performance of the economy and society in the long term.
The U.S. health care sector, for instance, took pride in using hospital beds efficiently: no bed was left unused. In outcome, when SARS-CoV-2 reached America at that place were merely 2.8 hospital beds per 1,000 people—far fewer than in other avant-garde countries—and the arrangement could not absorb the sudden surge in patients. Doing without paid sick leave in meat-packing plants increased profits in the short run, which as well increased Gross domestic product. But workers could non beget to stay abode when ill; instead they came to work and spread the infection. Similarly, China fabricated protective masks cheaper than the U.Southward. could, and then importing them increased economic efficiency and GDP. That meant, however, that when the pandemic hit and Red china needed far more masks than usual, hospital staff in the U.S. could not get plenty. In sum, the relentless drive to maximize short-term GDP worsened health care, caused financial and concrete insecurity, and reduced economic sustainability and resilience, leaving Americans more than vulnerable to shocks than the citizens of other countries.
The shallowness of Gdp thinking had already become evident in the 2000s. In preceding decades, European economists, seeing the success of the U.Southward. in increasing Gdp, had encouraged their leaders to follow American-mode economic policies. But as signs of distress in the U.S. banking system mounted in 2007, France’southward President Nicolas Sarkozy realized that any politician who unmarried-mindedly sought to push up GDP to the neglect of other indicators of the quality of life risked losing the confidence of the public. In January 2008 he asked me to chair an international commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress. A panel of experts was to answer the question: How can nations ameliorate their metrics? Measuring that which makes life worthwhile, Sarkozy reasoned, was an essential commencement footstep toward enhancing it.
Coincidentally, our initial report in 2009, provocatively entitled
Mismeasuring Our Lives: Why GDP Doesn’t Add Up, was published right after the global financial crisis had demonstrated the necessity of revisiting the cadre tenets of economic orthodoxy. It met with such positive resonance that the System for Economical Co-operation and Development (OECD)—a think tank that serves 38 avant-garde countries—decided to follow up with an expert group. After vi years of consultation and deliberation, we reinforced and amplified our earlier conclusion: Gdp should be dethroned. In its place, each nation should select a “dashboard”—a express gear up of metrics that would help steer it toward the future its citizens desired. In addition to Gross domestic product itself, as a mensurate for market activity (and no more than) the dashboard would include metrics for health, sustainability and whatever other values that the people of a nation aspired to, as well equally for inequality, insecurity and other harms that they sought to diminish.
These documents accept helped crystallize a global motility toward improved measures of social and economic wellness. The OECD has adopted the approach in its Better Life Initiative, which recommends 11 indicators—and provides citizens with a way to weigh these for their own state, relative to others, to generate an alphabetize that measures their performance on the things they care about. The World Depository financial institution and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), traditionally potent advocates of GDP thinking, are now likewise paying attending to surroundings, inequality and sustainability of the economy.
A few countries have fifty-fifty incorporated this approach into their policy-making frameworks. New Zealand, for instance, embedded “well-being” indicators in the country’s budgetary process in 2019. As the country’s finance government minister, Grant Robertson, put it: “Success is well-nigh making New Zealand both a keen place to make a living and a great place to brand a life.” This emphasis on well-existence may partly explain the nation’s triumph over COVID-xix, which appears to have been express to roughly 3,000 cases and 26 deaths in a full population of nearly v 1000000.
Apples and Armaments
Necessity is the mother of invention. Just as the dashboard emerged from a dire need—the inadequacy of the GDP as an indicator of well-existence, equally revealed by the Great Recession of 2008—and so did the GDP. During the Great Low, U.S. officials could barely quantify the problem. The government did not collect statistics on either aggrandizement or unemployment, which would take helped them steer the economy. Then the Section of Commerce charged economist Simon Kuznets of the National Bureau of Economic Research with creating a set of national statistics on income. Kuznets went on to construct the GDP in the 1940s as a elementary metric that could exist calculated from the exceedingly express market information then available. An aggregate of (the dollar value of) the goods and services produced in the state, information technology was equivalent to the sum of everyone’southward income—wages, profits, rents and taxes. For this and other piece of work, he received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1971. (Economist Richard Rock, who created similar statistical systems for the U.K., received the prize in 1984.)
Kuznets repeatedly warned, however, that the GDP only measured market place action and should non exist mistaken for a metric of social or fifty-fifty economic well-being. The figure included many appurtenances and services that were harmful (including, he believed, armaments) or useless (fiscal speculation) and excluded many essential ones that were free (such every bit caregiving by homemakers). A core difficulty with constructing such an aggregate is that there is no natural unit for adding the value of even apples and oranges, permit lone of such disparate things as armaments, financial speculation and caregiving. Thus, economists use their prices every bit a proxy for value—in the belief that, in a competitive market, prices reverberate how much people value apples, oranges, armaments, speculation or caregiving relative to ane another.
This profoundly problematic assumption—that cost measures relative value—made the GDP quite piece of cake to summate. As the U.S. recovered from the Depression by ramping up the production and consumption of cloth appurtenances (in particular, armaments during World War Ii), GDP grew chop-chop. The World Bank and the International monetary fund began to fund development programs in former colonies around the world, gauging their success almost exclusively in terms of Gdp growth.
Over time, every bit economists focused on the intricacies of comparing GDP in different eras and beyond various countries and amalgam circuitous economic models that predicted and explained changes in GDP, they lost sight of the metric’s shaky foundations. Students seldom studied the assumptions that went into amalgam the measure—and what these assumptions meant for the reliability of any inferences they made. Instead the objective of economic analysis became to explain the movements of this artificial entity. GDP became hegemonic across the globe: good economic policy was taken to be whatever increased Gdp the about.
In 1980, following a period of seemingly poor economic functioning—stagflation, marked past irksome growth and rising prices—President Ronald Reagan assumed office on the promise of ramping upwardly the economic system. He deregulated the fiscal sector and cut taxes for the better-off, arguing that the benefits would “trickle downwards” to those less fortunate. Although Gdp grew somewhat (albeit at a rate markedly lower than in the decades after Earth State of war II), inequality rose precipitously. Well aware that metrics matter, some members of the administration reportedly argued for stopping the collection of statistics on inequality. If Americans did not know how bad inequality was, presumably we would not worry about it.
The Reagan administration likewise unleashed unprecedented assaults on the environment, issuing leases for fossil-fuel extraction on millions of acres of public lands, for example. In 1995 I joined the Quango of Economic Advisers for President Nib Clinton. Worrying that our metrics paid also little attention to resource depletion and environmental degradation, we worked with the Department of Commerce to develop a measure out of “green” Gdp, which would accept such losses into account. When the congressional representatives from the coal states got wind of this, however, they threatened to cutting off our funding unless we stopped our work, which nosotros were obliged to.
The politicians knew that if Americans understood how bad coal was for our economy
correctly measured, then they would seek the elimination of the hidden subsidies that the coal manufacture receives. They might fifty-fifty seek to move more than quickly to renewables. Although our efforts to broaden our metrics were stymied, the fact that these representatives were willing to spend and so much political capital on stopping us convinced me we were on to something important. (It as well meant that when, a decade later, Sarkozy approached me nigh heading an international panel to examine ameliorate means of measuring “economic performance and social progress,” I leaped at the chance.)
I left the Council of Economical Advisers in 1997, and in the ensuing years the deregulatory fervor of the Reagan era came to grip the Clinton administration. The financial sector of the U.S. economy was ballooning, driving upwardly Gdp. As it turned out, many of the profits that gave that sector such heft were, in a sense, phony. Bankers’ lending practices had generated a existent-estate bubble that had artificially enhanced profits—and, with their pay existence linked to profits, had increased their bonuses. In the ideal free-market place economy, an increase in profits is supposed to reverberate an increment in societal well-existence, but the bankers’ takings put the lie to that notion. Much of their profits resulted from making others
off, such as when they engaged in abusive credit-card practices or manipulated LIBOR (for London Interbank Offered Rate of interest for international banks lending to one another) to enhance their earnings.
Just GDP figures took these inflated figures at face value, convincing policy makers that the best style to grow the economy was to remove any remaining regulations that constrained the finance sector. Long-standing prohibitions on usury—charging outrageous involvement rates to accept advantage of the unwary—were stripped away. In 2000 the and so-called Commodity Modernization Act was passed. It was designed to ensure that derivatives (risky fiscal products that played a big role in bringing down the financial organization just eight years later) would never be regulated. In 2005 a bankruptcy police force fabricated it more difficult for those having problem paying their bills to discharge their debts—making it almost impossible for those with educatee loans to do so.
Past the early 2000s 2 fifths of corporate profits came from the financial sector. That fraction should have signaled that something was wrong: an efficient financial sector should entail low costs for engaging in fiscal transactions and therefore should be pocket-size. Ours was huge. Untethering the market had inflated profits, driving up Gross domestic product—and, as it turned out, instability.
The bubble burst in 2008. Banks had been issuing mortgages indiscriminately, on the assumption that existent-estate prices would proceed to rise. When the housing chimera bankrupt, then did the economic system, falling more than it had since the immediate aftermath of Globe War II. After the U.S. regime rescued the banks (only one firm, AIG, received a government bailout of $130 billion), Gross domestic product improved, persuading President Barack Obama and the Federal Reserve to announce that we were well on the way to recovery. But with 91 percent of the gains in income in 2009 to 2012 going to the meridian 1 percent, the bulk of Americans experienced none.
As the country slowly emerged from the financial crunch, others allowable attention: the inequality crisis, the climate crisis and an opioid crisis. Even as Gdp connected to rise, life expectancy and other broader measures of health worsened. Nutrient companies were developing and marketing, with great ingenuity, addictive sugar-rich foods, augmenting GDP simply precipitating an epidemic of childhood diabetes. Addictive opioids led to an epidemic of drug deaths, but the profits of Purdue Pharma and the other villains in that drama added to Gdp. Indeed, the medical expenditures resulting from these health crises also additional GDP. Americans were spending twice every bit much per person on health care than the French but had lower life expectancy. So, also, coal mining seemingly boosted the economy, and although it helped to drive climatic change, worsening the touch on of hurricanes such as Harvey, the efforts to rebuild over again added to GDP. The GDP number provided an optimistic gloss to the worst of events.
These examples illustrate the disjuncture between GDP and societal well-being and the many ways that Gross domestic product fails to be a good measure of economic performance. The growth in GDP before 2008 was not sustainable, and it was not sustained. The increase in depository financial institution profits that seemed to fuel GDP in the years before the crisis were not only at the expense of the well-being of the many people whom the fiscal sector exploited but also at the expense of Gross domestic product in later years. The increment in inequality was by any measure hurting our society, simply Gdp was celebrating the banks’ successes. If at that place e’er was an event that drove home the need for new means of measuring economic performance and societal progress, the 2008 crisis was it.
The committee, led by three economists (Amartya Sen of Harvard University, Jean-Paul Fitoussi of the Paris Constitute of Political Studies and me), published its first report in 2009, just after the U.S. fiscal organization imploded. We pointed out that measuring something equally elementary as the fraction of Americans who might have difficulty refinancing their mortgages would accept illuminated the fume and mirrors underpinning the heady economic growth preceding the crisis and possibly enabled policy makers to fend it off. More important, building and paying attending to a broad set of metrics for nowadays-day well-beingness and its sustainability—whether practiced times are durable—would assistance buffer societies against time to come shocks.
We need to know whether, when GDP is going upwards, indebtedness is increasing or natural resource are being depleted; these may indicate that the economic growth is not sustainable. If pollution is rising along with Gross domestic product, growth is not environmentally sustainable. A good indicator of the true health of an economy is the health of its citizens, and if, equally in the U.Due south., life expectancy has been going down—as it was even before the pandemic—that should be worrying, no affair what is happening to GDP. If median income (that of the families in the centre) is stagnating fifty-fifty as GDP rises, that ways the fruits of economical growth are not being shared.
It would take been squeamish, of grade, if we could have come up with a single measure out that would summarize how well a society or fifty-fifty an economy is doing—a GDP plus number, say. Merely as with the Gross domestic product itself, besides much valuable information is lost when we class an aggregate. Say, you are driving your automobile. You desire to know how fast you lot are going and glance at the speedometer. Information technology reads 70 miles an hour. And you desire to know how far you lot can become without refilling your tank, which turns out to be 200 miles. Both those numbers are valuable, conveying information that could affect your behavior. Just at present assume you form a simple amass past adding upward the two numbers, with or without “weights.” What would a number like 270 tell y’all? Absolutely nothing. It would not tell you lot whether you are driving recklessly or how worried you should be nigh running out of fuel.
That was why we concluded that each nation needs a dashboard—a set of numbers that would convey essential diagnostics of its society and economy and aid steer them. Policy makers and civil-society groups should pay attention not only to cloth wealth just too to wellness, education, leisure, surroundings, equality, governance, political voice, social connectedness, concrete and economic security, and other indicators of the quality of life. But as of import, societies must ensure that these “appurtenances” are not bought at the expense of the future. To that stop, they should focus on maintaining and augmenting, to the extent possible, their stocks of natural, man, social and concrete capital. Nosotros besides laid out a research agenda for exploring links betwixt the different components of well-beingness and sustainability and developing good means to measure them.
Concern most climate change and ascent inequality had already been fueling a global demand for better measures, and our written report crystallized that trend. In 2015 a contentious political process culminated in the Un establishing a prepare of 17 Sustainable Evolution Goals. Progress toward them is to be measured past 232 indicators, reflecting the manifold concerns of governments and civil societies from around the world. And so many numbers are unhelpful, in our view: one tin lose sight of the forest for the copse. Instead another group of experts, chaired by Fitoussi, Martine Durand (chief statistician of the OECD) and me, recommended that each state institute a robust autonomous dialogue to find what problems its citizens most care near.
Such a conversation would virtually certainly show that virtually of us who live in highly developed economies intendance about our material well-beingness, our wellness, the environment effectually us and our relations with others. We desire to do well today but also in the time to come. We care about how the fruits of our economy are shared: we exercise not desire a society in which a few at the top grab everything for themselves and the rest alive in poverty. A good indicator of the true health of an economy is the health of its citizens. A decline in life expectancy, even for a part of the population, should be worrying, whatever is happening to GDP. And it is important to know if, fifty-fifty as Gdp is going up, and then, too, is pollution—whether it is emissions of greenhouse gases or particulates in the air. That means growth is not environmentally sustainable.
The choice of indicators may vary beyond time and among countries. Countries with loftier unemployment will want to rail what is happening to that variable; those with high inequality volition want to monitor that. Still, because people generally want to know how they are doing in comparing with others, nosotros recommended that the advanced countries, at least, share some five to 10 mutual indicators.
Gdp would be among them. And then would a measure of inequality or some pointer toward how the typical individual or household is doing. Over the years economists accept formulated a rash of indicators of inequality, each reflecting a different dimension of the miracle. It may well exist that societies where inequality has become particularly problematic may need to accept metrics reflecting the depth of the poverty at the lesser and the excesses of riches at the height. To me, knowing what is happening to median income is of particular importance; in the U.S., median income has barely changed for decades, even as GDP has grown.
Employment is often used as an indicator of macroeconomic performance—an economic system with a loftier unemployment rate clearly is not using all of its resource well. But in societies where paid work is associated with dignity, employment is a value in its own right. Other elements of the dashboard would include indicators for ecology degradation (say, air or water quality), economic sustainability (indebtedness), health (life expectancy) and insecurity.
Insecurity has both subjective and objective dimensions. We can survey how insecure people experience: how worried they are virtually adverse effects or how prepared they feel to cope with a shock. Merely we can besides predict the likelihood that someone falls below the poverty line in any given year. And some elements of the dashboard are “intermediate” variables—things that we may (or may not) value in themselves but that provide an clue of how a society volition function in the future. I of these is trust. Societies in which citizens trust their governments and one another to “do the right thing” tend to perform better. In fact, societies in which people take higher levels of trust, such as Vietnam and New Zealand, have dealt far more effectively with the pandemic than the U.S., for instance, where trust levels have declined since the Reagan era. Policy makers need to utilise such indicators much as physicians use their diagnostic tools. When some indicator is flashing yellow or red, it is fourth dimension to look deeper. If inequality is high or increasing, it is important to know more than: What aspects of inequality are getting worse?
Steering through Storms
Since we began our work on well-being indicators some dozen years ago, I have been amazed at the resonance that it has achieved. A focus on many of the elements of the dashboard has permeated policy making everywhere. Every three years the OECD hosts an international briefing of nongovernmental organizations, national statisticians, government officials and academics furthering the “well-being” agenda, the most recent being in Korea in Nov 2018, with thousands of participants.
Whenever the conference adjacent convenes, the global crisis in human being societies that a microscopic virus has precipitated will surely exist on the agenda. The full dimensions of it could take years or decades to become clear. Recovering from this calamity and steering circuitous societies through the even more devastating crises that loom—catastrophic climatic change and biodiversity collapse—will require, at the very to the lowest degree, an excellent navigational organisation. To paraphrase the OECD: We have been developing the tools to assist us bulldoze ameliorate. Information technology is fourth dimension to utilize them.
Economists Use Changes in Gdp to Measure