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)
- What does GDP measure?
- Does GDP of a country equate to the turnover of a firm?
- If growth in NNY is superior to growth in GDP as a measure of economic growth, why are GDP figures more generally used than NNY figures when assessing a country’s economic performance?
- How suitable is using GDP as a measure of a nation’s production?
- What does GPI measure?
- Is GPI superior to GDP as a measure of a nation’s level of development? Explain why or why not.
- Give some examples of where a growth in GDP might correspond to a decline in economic well-being.
- For what reasons could GPI measures be described as subjective?
- Would it be a good idea for a country to target growth in GPI/GDP? Explain your answer.
- In addition to real GNY per capita, the Human Development Index includes measures of education and life expectancy. For what other social objectives might education and life expectancy be useful proxies?
In December 2013, Uruguay passed a law permitting the growing, distribution and consumption of marijuana. The legislation comes into effect in April 2014. The state will regulate the industry to ensure good quality strains of the crop are grown and sold. It will also tax the industry.
Uruguay is the first country to legalise cannabis, but in July 2012, Colorado and Washington states in the USA passed laws permitting the sale and possession of small amounts of the drug for recreational use. (It was already legal to possess the drug for medical use.) The laws took effect a few months later. It is heavily taxed, however, especially in Washington, where it is taxed at a rate of 25% three times over: when it is sold to the processor; when the processor sells it to the retailer; and when the retailer sells it to the consumer. In Massachusetts, Nevada and Oregon, medical cannabis shops will be permitted to open this year. In the Netherlands, although the sale of cannabis is still illegal, ‘coffee shops’ are permitted to sell people up to 5 grams per day.
So should cannabis be legalised? People have very strong views on the subject and this can make a calm assessment of the issue more difficult. The economist’s approach to legalising cannabis involves seeking to identify and measure the costs and benefits of doing so. If the benefits exceed the costs, then it should be legalised; if not, it should remain illegal (or made illegal). The problem is that the size of the costs and benefits are not easy calculate as they involve estimates of things such as consumption levels, tax revenues, crime reduction, the effects on the consumption of other drugs, including legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco.
Nevertheless, various estimates of these costs and benefits have been made and provide a basis for discussion.
Possible benefits of cannabis legalisation include: increased tax revenues for the government; reduction in crime, and hence reduction in law enforcement and prison costs; encouraging people with addiction problems to seek help, as they would not fear arrest; reduction in the price, benefiting users; regulating quality of the drug; reducing the consumption of alcohol and more dangerous drugs if these are substitutes for cannabis; moral arguments concerning freedom of individuals to choose their lifestyle.
Possible costs include: increased consumption of cannabis, with attendant health and social side effects; increased consumption of other drugs if they are complements, or if cannabis is an ‘entry level’ drug to harder drugs; moral objections to drug taking.
Clearly some of these costs and benefits are easier to measure than others. Moral arguments are almost impossible to assess quantitatively, even when various underlying moral standpoints are agreed.
The following articles look at recent events and at the arguments, both economic and non-economic.
As Uruguay moves to legalise cannabis, is the ‘war on drugs’ finished? Metro (20/1/14)
Regulating the sale of marijuana: Global perspective Journalist’s Resource, John Wihbey (17/1/14)
Next Step in Uruguay: Competitive, Quality Marijuana Independent European Daily Express (IEDE) (12/1/14)
U.S. support for legalization of marijuana at an all-time HIGH Mail Online, Anna Edwards (7/1/14)
14 Ways Marijuana Legalization Could Boost The Economy Huffington Post, Harry Bradford (7/11/12)
Colorado pot legalization: 30 questions (and answers) The Denver Post, John Ingold (13/12/12)
Economists Predict Marijuana Legalization Will Produce ‘Public-Health Benefits’ Forbes, Jacob Sullum (1/11/13)
Economics of Cannabis Legalization Hemp Today, Dale Gieringer (10/10/93)
Pros & Cons of Legalizing Marijuana About.com: US Liberal Politics, Deborah White
Would Marijuana Legalization Increase the Demand for Marijuana? About.com: Economics, Mike Moffatt
Time to Legalize Marijuana? – 500+ Economists Endorse Marijuana Legalization About.com: Economics, Mike Moffatt
A cost benefit analysis of cannabis legalisation Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex
Licensing and regulation of the cannabis market in England and Wales: Towards a cost–benefit analysis Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex, Mark Bryan, Emilia Del Bono and Stephen Pudney (9/13)
What Can We Learn from the Dutch Cannabis Coffeeshop Experience? Rand Drug Policy Research Center, Robert J. MacCoun (7/10)
Licensing and regulating the cannabis market in England and Wales Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex, Stephen Pudney (15/9/13)
- If a country legalises cannabis, what is likely to happen to the price of cannabis? Use a demand and supply diagram to illustrate your argument, considering the effects on both demand and supply. How are the price elasticities of demand and supply relevant to your answer?
- What externalities are there from drug use?
- What externalities are there from making cannabis illegal?
- Distinguish between complementary and substitute goods for cannabis? How is the demand for these likely to be affected by legalising cannabis?
- Go through each of the benefits and costs of legalising cannabis and identify difficulties that might be experienced in quantifying these costs and benefits?
- If cannabis were legalised, how would you set about determining the optimum rate of tax on cannabis production, processing, distribution and sale?
- Consider the arguments for and against legalising cannabis from the perspective of (a) a free-market liberal and (b) a social democrat who sees government intervention as an important means of achieving various social goals.
On June 20, the Review of the Government’s case for a High Speed Rail programme was published. This was commissioned by the Transport Select Committee from the independent consultancy, Oxera.
The programme is initially for a high-speed rail link form London to Birmingham and then subsequently for two additonal routes from Birmingham to Manchester and from Birmingham to Leeds. The whole thing is known as the ‘HS2 Y programme’
Oxera’s brief was to ‘provide an independent review of the economic case for the programme and to provide a set of questions that the Committee could use to probe the evidence base put forward by witnesses during its inquiry.’ In considering the economic case, Oxera focused on the economic, social and environment impacts, both monetary and non-monetary.
The summary to the report states that:
Overall, the case for the High Speed Rail programme seems to depend on whether and when the capacity is needed, the selection of the best VfM [value-for-money] approach to delivering that capacity, the degree of uncertainty around the monetised benefits and costs of the preferred options, and judgements on the balance of evidence relating to non-monetised items, such as environment and regeneration impacts (which are likely to be substantive in their own right but not fully set out in the Government’s assessment).
On July 19, the Institute for Economic Affairs, the pro-free-market think-tank, published a highly critical disussion paper, challenging the case for HS2. The paper, High Speed 2: the next government project disaster? arges that:
There is a significant risk that High Speed 2 (HS2) will become the latest in a long series of government big-project disasters with higher-than-forecast costs and lower-than-forecast benefits. HS2 is not commercially viable and will require substantial and increasing levels of subsidy. Taxpayers will therefore bear a very high proportion of the financial risks, which are wholly under-represented in the Economic Case presented by the Department for Transport.
The publication of the report and the IEA discussion paper has fueled the debate between supporters and opponents of HS2, as the articles below demonstrate.
In November 2011, the House of Commons Transport Select Committee came out in favour of the government’s HS2 plans. According to the committee’s chair, Louise Ellman:
A high speed rail network, beginning with a line between London and the West Midlands, would provide a step change in the capacity, quality, reliability and frequency of rail services between our major cities.
A high speed line offers potential economic and strategic benefits which a conventional line does not, including a dramatic improvement in connectivity between our major cities, Heathrow and other airports, and the rest of Europe.
However, she did raise some issues that would need addressing concerning the overall level of investment in the rail network and the encironmental impact of HS2.
Investment in HS2 must not lead to reduced investment in the ‘classic’ rail network. We are concerned that the Government is developing separate strategies for rail and aviation, with HS2 separate from both. We call again for the publication of a comprehensive transport strategy.
Investment in high speed rail has potential to boost growth but may have a substantial negative impact on the countryside, communities and people along the route. This must be better reflected in the business case for HS2 and future phases of the project. We would encourage the Government to follow existing transport corridors wherever possible.
In January 2012, the government approved HS2. The Transport Secretary, Justine Greening, said:
I have decided Britain should embark upon the most significant transport infrastructure project since the building of the motorways by supporting the development and delivery of a new national high speed rail network.
The ‘articles for further update’ below give reactions to the announcement.
Is the UK’s high speed rail project a waste of money? BBC News, Rory Cellan-Jones (21/7/11)
On a collision path The Economist blogs, Blighty (21/7/11)
High speed rail dismissed as ‘vanity project’ by right-wing think tank The Telegraph, David Millward (19/7/11)
HS2 high-speed rail plans ‘a recipe for disaster’ Guardian, Dan Milmo (19/7/11)
High speed rail report shows ‘uncertainty’ over benefits Rail.co, A. Samuel (21/7/11)
Our high speed rail future BBC News, Rory Cellan-Jones (21/7/11)
Anger as high-speed rail link to London branded ‘vanity project’ Yorkshire Post (20/7/11)
Articles for update
MPs support plans for a high speed rail network BBC News, Richard Lister (8/11/11)
High-speed rail project will boost economy, say MPs Guardian, Dan Milmo (8/11/11)
High speed rail report ‘raises questions’ say opponents BBC News (8/11/11)
MPs back controversial high-speed rail link Yahoo News, Sebastien Bozon (8/11/11)
HS2 project: ‘Wrong to castigate locals’ BBC Today Programme (8/11/11)
Articles for further update
HS2 go-ahead sees mixed reaction BBC News (10/1/12)
HS2 – What’s in it for you? Channel 4 News (10/1/12)
Ready to depart: But will the HS2 express be derailed before it arrives? Independent, Nigel Morris (11/1/12)
HS2 go-ahead sees mixed reaction BBC News (10/1/12)
HS2 go-ahead sees mixed reaction BBC News (10/1/12)
Reports and discussion paper
Review of the Government’s case for a High Speed Rail programme Oxera Publishing (20/6/11)
High Speed 2: the next government project disaster? IEA Discussion Paper No. 36 (19/7/11)
Good case for high speed rail to run to Birmingham and beyond, say MPs House of Commons Transport Select Committee News (8/11/11)
Transport Committee – Tenth Report: High Speed Rail House of Commons Transport Select Committee (8/11/11)
- Itemise (a) the monetary costs and benefits and (b) the non-monetary costs and benefits of HS2 that were identified by Oxera. Try to identify other costs and benefits that were not included by Oxera.
- Why are the costs and benefits subject to great uncertainty?
- How should this uncertainty be taken into account by decision-makers?
- Explain the process of discounting in cost–benefit analysis. How should the rate of discount be chosen?
- What are the main criticisms of the report made by the IEA discussion paper?
- Assess these criticisms.
Economics studies scarcity and the allocation of resources. Central to societies’ economic objectives is the reduction in scarcity and central to that is economic growth. Certainly, economic growth is a major objective of all governments. They know that they will be judged by their record on economic growth.
But what do we mean by economic growth? The normal measure is growth in GDP. But does GDP measure how much a society benefits? Many people argue that GDP is a poor proxy for social benefit and that a new method of establishing the level of human well-being and happiness is necessary.
And it’s not just at macro level. As we saw in a previous news article, A new felicific calculus? happiness and unhappiness are central to economists’ analysis of consumer behaviour. If we define ‘utility’ as perceived happiness, standard consumer theory assumes that rational people will seek to maximise the excess of happiness over the costs of achieving it: i.e. will seek to maximise consumer surplus.
There have been three recent developments in the measurement of happiness. ‘Understanding Society’ is a £48.9m government-funded UK study following 40,000 households and is run by the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Essex. It has just published its first findings (see link below).
The second development is the work by the ONS on developing new measures of national well-being and includes a questionnaire asking about the things that matter to people and which should be included in a measure or measures of national well-being.
The third development will be an addition of five new questions to the Integrated Household Survey:
• Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?
• Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?
• Overall, how anxious did you feel yesterday?
• Overall, to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?
But after all this, will we be any closer to getting a correct measure of human well-being? Will the results of such investigations help governments devise policy? Will the government be closer to measuring the costs and benefits of any policy decisions?
- Married for less than five years, young, childless: survey finds that’s happiness
Guardian, David Sharrock (27/2/11)
- The UK’s largest household longitudinal study launches its early findings
- Happiness Studied in Britain
MeD India (1/3/11)
- Statisticians to tackle ticklish issue of happiness
Financial Times (24/2/11)
- Survey to ask ‘How happy are you?’
BBC News (24/2/11)
- ONS happiness questions revealed
The Telegraph, Tim Ross (24/2/11)
- What makes us happy?
The Telegraph (7/3/11)
- Bhutan’s ‘Gross National Happiness’ index
The Telegraph, Dean Nelson (2/3/11)
- Bhutan’s experiment with happiness
The Third Pole (China), Dipika Chhetri (25/2/11)
- Gross National Happiness: The 10 Principles
The Huffington Post (China), Nancy Chuda (24/2/11)
- You’re asking me if I’m happy? What kind of a question is that?
Independent, Natalie Haynes (26/2/11)
- Happiness = Work, sleep and bicycles
BBC News blogs, Mark Easton’s UK, Mark Easton (25/2/11)
- The Future of Consumption and Economic Growth
Minyanville, Professor Pinch and Conor Sen (14/2/11)
- Happiness: A measure of cheer
Financial Times (27/12/10)
Understanding Society site
- For what reasons might GDP be a poor measure of human well-being?
- How suitable is a survey of individuals for establishing the nation’s happiness?
- How suitable are each of the four specific questions above for measuring a person’s well-being?
- Why, do you think, has average life satisfaction not increased over the past 30 years despite a substantial increase in GDP per head?
- Give some examples of ways in which national well-being could increase for any given level of GDP. Explain why they would increase well-being.
- Should other countries follow Bhutan’s example and use a ‘groass national happiness index’ to drive economic and social policy?
- If human well-being could be accurately measured, should that be the sole driver of economic and social policy?
- Do people’s spending patterns give a good indication of the things that give them happiness?
Happiness and unhappiness are central to economists’ analysis of consumer behaviour. If we define ‘utility’ as perceived happiness, standard consumer theory assumes that rational people will seek to maximise the excess of happiness over the costs of achieving it: i.e. will seek to maximise consumer surplus. In fact, this analysis can be traced back to the work of the utilitarians, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Bentham reffered to it as hedonic or felicific calculus (see also and also).
Now, of course, whether people actually behave in this way is an empirical question: one that behavioural and experimental economists have been investigating over a number of years. Nevertheless, it remains central to neoclassical analysis of ‘rational behaviour’.
But if happiness is central to a large part of economic analysis, how is happiness to be measured? At a micro level, this has proved problematic as it is virtually impossible to have inter-personal comparisons of utility. As a result, consumer theory uses indifference analysis, characteristics analysis, revealed preference and other approaches to analyse consumer demand.
But what about at the macro level? How is a nation’s happiness or well-being to be measured? There is general acceptance that GDP is a relatively poor proxy for national well-being and is more a measure of production. There have been various indices developed over the years (see, for example, Box 14.7 on ISEW in Economics, 7th edition) as alternatives to GDP. None has been adopted by governments, however, with the exception of a Gross National Happiness index in Bhutan.
Recently, however, there has been renewed interest in developing an index of well-being. In France, President Sarkozy commissioned two Nobel economists, Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, to examine the issues in developing such a measure. In the light of the Stiglitz/Sen report, David Cameron has asked the Office of National Statistics to measure the UK’s general well-being. The articles below look at the difficulties that could arise in producing an index of well-being, of meauring the elements and in using it for policy.
UK Prime Minister Cameron Moves on UK Happiness Index Triple Pundit, Kristina Robinson (17/11/10)
David Cameron’s happiness index finds support despite impending decade of austerity Daily Record, Magnus Gardham (16/11/10)
How can we measure happiness? Telegraph, Philip Johnston (16/11/10)
David Cameron aims to make happiness the new GDP Guardian, Allegra Stratton (14/11/10)
An unhappiness index is more David Cameron’s style Guardian, Polly Toynbee (16/11/10)
Happiness is a warm baguette? The Economist (13/1/08)
‘Stiglitz-Sen Moving in the Right Direction, but Slowly’ IPS, Hazel Henderson (18/9/09)
The Rise and Fall of the G.D.P. New York Times Magazine (13/5/10)
Happiness doesn’t increase with growing wealth of nations, finds study Guardian, Alok Jha (13/12/10)
Should governments pursue happiness rather than economic growth? The Economist (25/11/10)
M&S’s Sir Stuart Rose among UK’s expert happiness panel BBC News (27/1/11)
The Stiglitz/Sen/Fitoussi report
Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, Jean-Paul Fitoussi (September 2009)
- What are the shortcomings of using GDP as a measure of a nation’s well-being?
- Summarise the main findings of the Stiglitz/Sen/Fetoussi report.
- What items would be included in a happiness or well-being index that (a) are not included in GDP; (b) not included in Stiglitz and Sen’s proposed net national product measure? How would such an index be compiled?
- Would it be satisfactory to compile such an index purely on the basis of survey evidence? Why might such evidence prove unreliable?
- What are the political advantages and disadvantages of using such an index?
- Is utilitarianism the best basis for judging the progress of society?