An impressive article in the New York Times by Jon Gertner called “The Rise and Fall of the GDP” is well worth a read. We gained a lot of information when the national income accounts began to be collected in the early 20th century, but of course GDP left much to be desired. In fact, Gertner points out that obsessing over GDP may be dangerous, because it engenders growth-craving policies:
The G.D.P., according to arguments I heard from economists as far afield as Italy, France and Canada, has not only failed to capture the well-being of a 21st-century society but has also skewed global political objectives toward the single-minded pursuit of economic growth. “The economists messed everything up,” Alex Michalos, a former chancellor at the University of Northern British Columbia, told me recently when I was in Toronto to hear his presentation on the Canadian Index of Well-Being. The index is making its debut this year as a counterweight to the monolithic gross domestic product numbers. “The main barrier to getting progress has been that statistical agencies around the world are run by economists and statisticians,” Michalos said. “And they are not people who are comfortable with human beings.” The fundamental national measure they employ, he added, tells us a good deal about the economy but almost nothing about the specific things in our lives that really matter.
One exciting effort comes from State of the USA:
In the U.S., one challenge to the G.D.P. is coming not from a single new index, or even a dozen new measures, but from several hundred new measures — accessible free online for anyone to see, all updated regularly. Such a system of national measurements, known as State of the USA, will go live online this summer. Its arrival comes at an opportune moment, but it has been a long time in the works. In 2003, a government official named Chris Hoenig was working at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, and running a group that was researching ways to evaluate national progress. Since 2007, when the project became independent and took the name State of the USA, Hoenig has been guided by the advice of the National Academy of Sciences, an all-star board from the academic and business worlds and a number of former leaders of federal statistical agencies. Some of the country’s elite philanthropies — including the Hewlett, MacArthur and Rockefeller foundations — have provided grants to help get the project started.
…The State of the USA intends to ultimately post around 300 indicators on issues like crime, energy, infrastructure, housing, health, education, environment and the economy. All areas of measurement will be chosen by members of the National Academy; all will be reviewed for rigor and accuracy by a panel of accomplished experts. With easy access to national information, Hoenig told me optimistically, Americans might soon be able “to shift the debate from opinions to more evidence-based discussions to ideally a discussion about what solutions are and are not working.”
Those involved with the self-defined indicators movement — people like Hoenig, as well as supporters around the world who would like to dethrone G.D.P. — argue that achieving a sustainable economy, and a sustainable society, may prove impossible without new ways to evaluate national progress.
Perhaps these efforts will challenge economists and the rest of society to think about human purpose. Pursue economic growth, but for what end? Our end purpose cannot be to make loads of money and then spend all day on the golf course. We need to be able to think about how to make our lives more fulfilling, and GDP hardly comes close to measuring that.