Policymakers around the world have used Gross Domestic Product as the main gauge of economic performance – and have often adopted policies that aim to maximise its rate of growth. Generation after generation of economists have committed significant time and effort to thinking about the factors that influence GDP growth, on the premise that an expanding and healthy economy is one that sees its GDP increasing every year at a sufficient rate.
But is economic output a good enough indicator of national economic wellbeing? Costanza et al (2014) (see link below) argue that, despite its merits, GDP can be a ‘misleading measure of national success’:
GDP measures mainly market transactions. It ignores social costs, environmental impacts and income inequality. If a business used GDP-style accounting, it would aim to maximize gross revenue — even at the expense of profitability, efficiency, sustainability or flexibility. That is hardly smart or sustainable (think Enron). Yet since the end of the Second World War, promoting GDP growth has remained the primary national policy goal in almost every country. Meanwhile, researchers have become much better at measuring what actually does make life worthwhile. The environmental and social effects of GDP growth is a misleading measure of national success. Countries should act now to embrace new metrics.
The limitations of GDP growth as a measure of economic wellbeing and national strength are becoming increasingly clear in today’s world. Some of the world’s wealthiest countries are plagued by discontent, with a growth in populism and social discontent – attitudes which are often fuelled by high rates of poverty and economic hardship. In a recent report titled ‘The Living Standards Audit 2018’ published by the Resolution Foundation, a UK economic thinktank (see link below), the authors found that child poverty rose in 2016–17 as a result of declining incomes of the poorest third of UK households:
While the economic profile of UK households has changed, living standards – with the exception of pensioner households – have mostly stagnated since the mid-2000s. Typical household incomes are not much higher than they were in 2003–04. This stagnation in living standards for many has brought with it a rise in poverty rates for low to middle income families. Over a third of low to middle income families with children are in poverty, up from a quarter in the mid-2000s, and nearly two-fifths say that they can’t afford a holiday away for their children once a year. On the other hand, the share of non-working families in poverty has fallen, though not by enough to prevent an overall rise in poverty since 2010.
Their projections also show that this rise in poverty was likely to have continued in 2017–18:
Although the increase in broad measures of inequality were relatively muted last year, our nowcast suggests that there was a pronounced rise in poverty (measured after housing costs[…]. The increase in overall poverty (from 22.1 to 23.2 per cent) was the largest since 1988. But this was dwarfed by the increase in child poverty, which rose from 30.3 per cent to 33.4 per cent. […]The fortunes of middle-income households diverged from those towards the bottom of the distribution and so a greater share of households, and children, found themselves below the poverty threshold.
A simple literature search on Scope (or even Google Scholar) shows that there has been a significant increase in the number of journal articles and reports in the last 10 years on this topic. We do talk more about the limitations of GDP, but we are still using it as the main measure of national economic performance.
Is it then time to stop focusing our attention on GDP growth exclusively and start considering broader metrics of social development? And what would such metrics look like? Both interesting questions that we will try to address in coming blogs.
- What are the main strengths and weakness of using GDP as measure of economic performance?
- Is high GDP growth alone enough to foster economic and social wellbeing? Explain your answer using examples.
- Write a list of alternative measures that could be used alongside GDP-based metrics to measure economic and social progress. Explain your answer.
GDP is often used as a measure of wellbeing, even though it is really only a measure of the market value of a nation’s output or an indicator of economic activity. But although higher consumption can improve living standards, it is only one contributor to wellbeing, whether at individual or social level.
There are essentially four types of problems from using GDP as a measure of how society is doing.
The first is that it does not include (as negative figures) many external costs, such as pollution, stress and family breakdown related to work.
The second is that it includes things that are produced to counteract the adverse effects of increased production, such as security, antidepressants, therapy and clean-up activities.
The third is that it ignores things that are produced and do contribute to wellbeing and yet are not traded in the market. Examples include volunteer work, the ‘output’ of clubs and societies, work within the home, production from allotments and various activities taking place in the ‘underground economy’ to avoid taxation.
The fourth is the sustainability of economic growth. If we deplete natural resources, the growth of today may be at the cost of the wellbeing of future generations.
Then there is the question of the distribution of the benefits of production. Although GDP figures can be adjusted for distribution, crude GDP growth figures are not. If a few wealthy get a lot richer and the majority do not, or even get poorer, a growth in GDP will not signify a growth in wellbeing of the majority.
Then there is the question of the diminishing marginal utility of income. If an extra pound to a rich person gives less additional wellbeing than an extra pound to a poor person, then any given growth rate accompanied by an increase in inequality will contribute less to wellbeing than the same growth rate accompanied by a decrease in inequality.
The first article below criticises the use of crude indicators, such as the growth in GDP or stock market prices to signify wellbeing. It also looks at some alternative indicators that can capture some of the contributions to wellbeing missed by GDP figures.
Want to know how society’s doing? Forget GDP – try these alternatives The Guardian, Mark Rice-Oxley (27/1/17)
The Increasingly Inadequate Measurement Of Productivity The Market Mogul, Chris Woods (20/1/17)
Why GDP fails as a measure of well-being CBS News, Mark Thoma (27/1/16)
Limitations of GDP as Welfare Indicator The Sceptical Economist, zielonygrzyb (31/7/12)
- Should GDP be abandoned as an indicator?
- How could GDP be refined to capture more of the factors affecting wellbeing?
- Go through each of the indicators discussed in the first article above and consider their suitability as an indicator of wellbeing.
- “Everywhere you look, there are better benchmarks than these tired old financial yardsticks.” Identify three such indicators not considered in the first article and discuss their suitability as measures of economic performance.
- How might the benefit you gain from free apps be captured?
- Consider the suitability of these alternatives to GDP.
Deflation is currently a concern in the UK and across Europe. However, relative to Japan, the deflation concern is small. In Japan, deflation has been problematic for more than two decades and this has had significant implications for the Japanese economy.
‘Abenomics’ has been in practice in Japan, as the Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has been trying to reflate the economy. Growth has been improving and the deflation concern appeared to be under control. However, GDP data now shows that the economy is once again declining and so with aggregate demand falling, this pushes down average prices across the economy and so the deflation risk re-emerges. This article from BBC News and another from The Guardian look at the economic policy known as ‘Abenomics’ and how the Japanese economy is faring.
Off target: Is it the end of ‘Abenomics’ in Japan? BBC News, Rupert Wingfield-Hayes (15/2/16)
Japan’s economy shrinks again as Abenomics is blown off course The Guardian, Justin McCurry (15/2/16)
Japan’s deflation fears grow (update) (27/2/16)
Riding the Japanese roller coaster (15/2/16)
Japan’s interesting monetary stance as deflation fears grow (14/2/16)
Japan’s arrows missing their target (17/11/14)
Japan’s recovery (3/2/14)
Abenomics – one year on (16/12/13)
Japan’s three arrows (6/6/13)
- What are the key features of Japan’s ‘Abenomics’?
- Why is deflation such a concern? Surely falling prices are good for consumers and hence the economy.
- How has Japan been trying to reflate its economy and why has this failed?
- The yen is getting stronger, but how will this affect the Japanese economy? Use a demand and supply diagram to illustrate what has caused the value of the yen to fall and an aggregate demand and supply diagram to show the impact.
- Negative interest rates have been implemented in Japan. What does this mean for savers and borrowers and the economy?
- How do you think Japan’s stance on immigration and structural change is affecting its macroeconomy?
Two surveys have been released looking at the quality of life in cities and the levels of happiness of their residents. The first is a three-yearly Eurobarometer survey by the European Commission focusing on 83 European cities/conurbations. This survey finds that, despite growing concerns about immigration, terrorism and stagnant real incomes, levels of satisfaction have remained stable since the 2012 survey. In all except six cities, at least 80% of respondents say that they are satisfied to live in their city. The highest scores (above 98%) are in the north of Europe.
The second is the 2016 Quality of Life Survey (an annual survey) by the consultancy firm, Mercer. This looks at cities worldwide, particularly from the perspective of employees of multinational companies being placed abroad. The survey found that the top ten cities by quality of life include seven in Europe, and that the five safest cities in the world are all in Europe.
So what is it that makes the quality of life so high in many European cities, especially those in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Scandinavia? Is it that income per head is higher in these cities? In other words, is the quality of life related to GDP?
The answer is only loosely related to GDP. What seems more important is people’s income relative to other people and whether their income relative to other people is rising.
But people regard the quality of life in cities as depending on other factors than simple relative income. One factor common across all cities is household composition. People are least happy if they live on their own.
Other factors include: a feeling of safety; how well integrated different ethic and social groups are felt to be; the quality of public transport; the cleanliness of the city; health care provision and social services; the quality of schools and other educational establishments; sports facilities; cultural facilities; parks and other public spaces; the quality of shops, restaurants and other retail outlets; the quality and price of housing; the ease of getting a job; trust in fellow citizens; environmental factors, such as air quality, noise, traffic congestion and cleanliness; good governance of the city. The top three issues are health services, unemployment and education and training.
Although cities with higher incomes per head can usually afford to provide better services, there is only a loose correlation between income per head and quality of life in cities. Many of the factors affecting quality of life are not provided by the market but are provided publicly or are part of social interaction outside the market.
Happiness in Europe The Economist (25/2/16)
Happiness in Europe: What makes Europeans happy? It depends on where they live The Economist (27/2/16)
Rating Europe’s Most and Least Happy Cities CityLab, Feargus O’Sullivan (9/2/16)
Europe’s Nicest Cities Aren’t Its Happiest Ones Bloomberg, Therese Raphael (2/2/16)
Vienna named world’s top city for quality of life The Guardian, Patrick Collinson (23/2/16)
Vienna named world’s best city to live for quality of life, but London, New York and Paris fail to make top rankings Independent, Loulla-Mae Eleftheriou-Smith (23.2.16)
The world’s most liveable cities: London and Edinburgh rank in top 50 The Telegraph, Soo Kim (23/2/16)
Quality of Life in European Cities 2015 Flash Eurobarometer 41 (January 2016)
Quality of Life in European Cities 2015: Individual Country Reports Flash Eurobarometer 41 (January 2016) (This may take a short while to download.)
Quality of life in European Cities 2015: Data for Research Flash Eurobarometer 41 (January 2016)
2016 Quality of Living Rankings Mercer (23/2/16)
Western European Cities Top Quality of Living Ranking Mercer, Press Release (23/2/16)
- Why, do you think, is the quality of life is generally higher in (a) most northern European cities than most southern and eastern European ones; (b) most European cities rather than most north American ones?
- To what extent is (a) absolute real income per head; (b) relative real income per head an indicator of quality of living in cities?
- Why, do you think, are Italians less satisfied with the quality of life in their cities than residents of other western European countries?
- What factors affect your own quality of living? To what extent do they depend on the city/town/village/area where you live?
- Look at the list of factors above that affect quality of life in a given city. Put them in order of priority for you and identify any other factors not listed. To what extent do they depend on your age, your background, your income and your personal interests and tastes?
- Identify a particular city with which you are relatively familiar and assume that you were responsible for allocating the city’s budget. What would you spend more money on, what less and what the same? Provide a justification for your allocation.
- Discuss the following passage from the Bloomberg article: “What is striking is that there appears to be a correlation between those who report high levels of satisfaction and those who view foreigners in their city as an advantage. Conversely, respondents who complained loudest about transportation, public services, safety and other issues tended to view the presence of foreigners far less favorably.”
Economics, but not as we know it. As the introduction to this programme on BBC radio 4 suggests, there has been criticism and concern about the way in which we think about economics. About, how it’s taught; the lessons we learn and whether we need to have a re-think. Tomas Sedlacek is a Czech economist and has a different way of thinking about this subject.
Humanomics is certainly a new way of thinking about economics and considering how it links and can be applied to a wide range of areas: the Bible; movies such as Fight Club and the Matrix. This 30 minute discussion between Evan Davies and Tomas Sedlacek provides some interesting insights and thoughts on some of the current challenges facing this subject and some novel insights into how we could change our thinking.
Tomas Sedlacek: The Economics of Good and Evil BBC Radio 4 (25/01/16)
- How do we define and measure value? Is this always possible? Can you think of some things where we cannot assign prices or numbers to values?
- How could economics be relevant Adam and Eve?
- Think about the marriage market. How would you apply the model of demand and supply to this most unusual of markets?
- What insights does Tomas Sedlacek provide about the ancient business cycle and this might affect our thinking about debt and assets?
- Do you think that refugees are of benefit to a country? If you don’t think they are of benefit, does this mean that countries should not accept them?
- If we did find out that corruption or crime and terrorism were of benefit to the GDP of a country, would you encourage it? Or would you place the morality issue above the actual figure of contribution?