A key economic objective of governments around the world is economic growth, where economic growth is taken to mean growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This can be refined as growth in GDP per head or growth in Net National Income (NNY or NNI) – this takes account of depreciation and net flows of income to and from abroad. But is GDP (or NNY) an appropriate measure? There continues to be much debate about this and there is a lot of support for adopting an alternative measure – the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) as a target for economic policy.
GDP measures the market value of production and is the value added at each stage of production. If the value of a nation’s production is what you want to measure or target, then GDP is quite a good indicator. Its main drawbacks are that it uses market prices, which may be distorted, and that much of production in the informal sector is not included.
But if GDP growth is taken to be a proxy for development or growth in wellbeing of the residents of a country, then it has serious shortcomings. This is not to say that GDP gives no indication of progress. Generally, countries with higher GDP per head have a better standard of living, but it is not necessarily the case that, if Country A has higher production in the formal sector than Country B, its residents will be happier, more fulfilled and have fewer economic or other problems.
GDP, by focusing on production, ignores many environmental and social costs of that production. Valuable but not tradable resources, such as clean air, rivers and oceans, may be sacrificed for the sake of extra production and this is recorded as a gain in GDP.
Similarly, unless GDP is specifically weighted by income groups, which virtually never happens, it does not take into account income distribution. Much of the growth in production in both rich and poor countries in recent decades has gone to the richest people. Take the case of the USA. In 1944 the share of income going to the top 1% share was 11.3%, while the bottom 90% were receiving 67.5%. Such levels remained roughly constant for the next three decades. But then things began to change.
Starting in the mid- to late 1970s, the uppermost tier’s income share began rising dramatically, while that of the bottom 90% started to fall. The top 1% took heavy hits from the dot-com crash and the Great Recession but recovered fairly quickly: [preliminary estimates for 2012 by Emmanuel Saez] have that group receiving nearly 22.5% of all pre-tax income, while the bottom 90%’s share is below 50% for the first time ever (49.6%, to be precise).
So what does GPI measure and why may it be a better target for policy-makers than GDP or NNY? The answer is that it includes a number of important items that affect the well-being of a country, such as resource depletion, social activity and income distribution, that are not measured in GDP. So what would cause GPI to rise? According to The Guardian article below, examples would include:
Getting more energy from renewables; increased energy efficiency; reducing the income gap; putting more reliable, durable products on the market (have you heard of planned obsolescence?); volunteering more for your community; preserving wetlands, forests, and farmland; shorter commutes and transport routes. In fact, there are 26 ways the GPI can go up, all measured in dollars that boil down to a single number.
GPI is being increasingly adopted as a measure of progress. In the USA, it is officially used in Vermont and Maryland and is being considered in other states, such as Hawaii, Washington and Oregon.
And there are other alternatives. For example, since 1990, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has published an annual Human Development Index (HDI) As Box 27.1 in Economics, 8th edition states:
HDI is the average of three indices based on three sets of variables: (i) life expectancy at birth, (ii) education (a weighted average of (a) the mean years that a 25-year-old person or older has spent in school and (b) the number of years of schooling that a 5-year-old child is expected to have over their lifetime) and (iii) real GNY per capita, measured in US dollars at purchasing-power parity exchange rates.
The following articles look at the suitability of GDP and GPI and whether, by targeting growth in GDP, governments are guilty of downplaying the importance of other economic and social objectives.
Beyond GDP: US states have adopted genuine progress indicators The Guardian, Marta Ceroni (23/9/14)
Forget the GDP. Some States Have Found a Better Way to Measure Our Progress. New Republic, Lew Daly and Sean McElwee (3/2/14)
Gross domestic problem Aljazeera, Sean McElwee (6/6/14)
Creating the Circular Economy, Part II Environmental Leader, David Dornfeld (17/9/14)
Development: Time to leave GDP behind Nature, Robert Costanza, Ida Kubiszewski, Enrico Giovannini, Hunter Lovins, Jacqueline McGlade, Kate E. Pickett, Kristín Vala Ragnarsdóttir, Debra Roberts, Roberto De Vogli and Richard Wilkinson (15/1/14)
The Problems With Using GPI Rather Than GDP Forbes, Tim Worstall (5/6/14)