Tag: GDP statistics

GDP figures are often a poor measure of a country’s economic well-being. By focusing on production, they may not capture the contribution of a range of social and environmental factors to people’s living standards, including the various negative and positive externalities from production and consumption themselves. A case in point is internet innovation: an issue considered in the first linked article below by the eminent economist, Joseph Stiglitz.

The effects of innovations that directly lead to an increase in output are relatively easy to measure. Many innovations, however, may allow those with power to consolidate that power, resulting in less competition and a possible decline in welfare. If, for example, companies such as Amazon, invest in online retailing and gain a first-mover advantage, they may be able to use this power to drive out competitors. In other words, innovations may not simply lower the cost of production and hence prices: they may even lead to an increase in prices.

Then there are innovations, such as faster broadband, that result in higher quality. While higher quality in one sphere may lead to higher output elsewhere, in many cases it is just improving the experience of consumers without being reflected in a way that can be easily measured.

Some innovations may be judged as socially harmful. Thus improved gaming functionality and realism may encourage people to spend more time online. The social and health implications of this may be considered as undesirable and resulting in a reduction in well-being. Of course, many gamers would disagree!

The point is that technological innovations often result in a change in tastes. These changes in tastes may involve negative externalities, themselves very hard to quantify. Consequently, resulting changes to GDP may be a very poor indicator of changes in social well-being.

The articles below consider some of these issues. The Stiglitz article gives an example of innovation in financial services. Although highly profitable for many working in the sector – at least until the crash of 2008/9 – according to the author, these innovations led to both lower GDP growth and a net contribution to social welfare that was negative.

The benefits of internet innovation are hard to spot in GDP statistics The Guardian, Joseph Stiglitz (10/3/14)
Economist argues for happiness over GDP Yale Daily News, Joyce Guo (19/2/14)
‘GDP: A Brief But Affectionate History’ by Diane Coyle and ‘The Leading Indicators: A Short History of the Numbers That Rule Our World’ by Zachary Karabell Washington Post, Tyler Cowen (21/2/14)
Emerging Markets: Income Returns To Innovation (GDP Per Capita Vs. Innovation Index) Seeking Alphz, Jon Harrison (4/3/14)


  1. What does GDP measure?
  2. What factors affecting the welfare of society are not measured in GDP?
  3. What alternative indicators are there to GDP as a measure of living standards?
  4. How would you set about measuring the effects on living standards of a technological revolution, such as the ability to access 4G on the move on laptops and smartphones (e.g. on trains)?
  5. How should the net benefits of installing more ATMs (cash machines) be calculated?
  6. Revisit the blog Time to leave GDP behind? and answer question 8.
  7. Referring to the Jon Harrison article, how would you construct an innovation index? How is innovation related too GDP per capita?

Preliminary figures for Quarter 2 UK GDP suggest that the UK economy has been declining faster than many had expected. Does this mean that the recession in the UK will be more prolonged, or can we expect a return to growth by the end of the year? How much does the outcome depend on policy decisions taken now and what should be done in terms of quantitative easing and other policy measures?

The answers to these questions depend to some extent on the reliability of the figures, which, after all, are only preliminary estimates. Past estimates have tended to understate the level of output and growth, but could the latest estimates understate the depth of the recession? The following articles look at the figures and their implications for policy. The two articles from The Economist look at the global context.

UK economy continues to contract BBC News (24/7/09)
Recession Britain Guardian (24/7/09)
‘Shocking’ GDP figures raise fears of long road to recovery Herald (25/7/09)
Hopes of early end to recession dashed Independent (25/7/09)
Treasury defiant on growth despite gloom over GDP Times Online (26/7/09)
UK GDP: What the economists say Guardian (24/7/09)
Hamish McRae: The GDP figures were profoundly gloomy … but they were wrong Independent (26/7/09)
The shrinking economy BBC News, Stephanomics (24/7/09)
Here comes August, the cruellest month of all Observer (26/7/09)
Rebalancing global growth: a long way to go Economist (23/7/09)
Unpredictable tides Economist (23/7/09)
Gross domestic product, Preliminary estimate, 2nd quarter 2009 Office for National Statistics, Statistical Bulletin (24/7/09)
Gross domestic product, Preliminary estimate, 4th quarter 2008 Office for National Statistics, Statistical Bulletin (24/7/09)


  1. What factors will determine whether the UK economy starts to growth again by the end of 2009?
  2. Plot the quarterly growth rate of GDP from 2007 Q1. Plot two lines on the same graph: one from the 2008 Q4 estimates and one from the 2009 Q2 estimates (see last two links above). How would you explain the discrepancies between the figures?
  3. What policy measures would you recommend to the Bank of England and the government in the light of the GDP estimates?
  4. ’The deeper and longer the recession, the more will potential (as well as actual) output fall.’ Do you agree with this statement? Explain your answer.
  5. Referring to the two Economist articles, what conditions are necessary for sustained long-term economic growth?

Do you know what the current rate of economic growth is? Probably not. In the article below Larry Elliott argues that this may indicate that the link between economic growth and happiness has been broken and that alternative measures of GDP may be more helpful in analysing the performance of the economy.

Cameron should count on happiness Guardian (27/8/07)


1. Explain what is meant by the term ‘Index of sustainable economic welfare’.
2. Examine three factors that may raise economic welfare that are not included in a conventional measure of GDP.
3. Use the Friends of the Earth make your own ISEW site to analyse the factors that may contribute the most to economic welfare. Discuss the arguments for and against the introduction of an ISEW as an official government measure of economic welfare.