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)
- What does GDP measure?
- What factors affecting the welfare of society are not measured in GDP?
- What alternative indicators are there to GDP as a measure of living standards?
- 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)?
- How should the net benefits of installing more ATMs (cash machines) be calculated?
- Revisit the blog Time to leave GDP behind? and answer question 8.
- Referring to the Jon Harrison article, how would you construct an innovation index? How is innovation related too GDP per capita?