Time to leave GDP behind?

GDP is still the most frequently used indicator of a country’s development. When governments target economic growth as a key goal, it is growth in GDP to which they are referring. And they often make the assumption that growth in GDP is a proxy for growth in well-being. But is it time to leave GDP behind as the main indicator of national economic success? This is the question posed in the first of the linked articles below, from the prestigious science journal Nature.

As the article states:

Robert F. Kennedy once said that a country’s gross domestic product (GDP) measures “everything except that which makes life worthwhile”. The metric was developed in the 1930s and 1940s amid the upheaval of the Great Depression and global war. Even before the United Nations began requiring countries to collect data to report national GDP, Simon Kuznets, the metric’s chief architect, had warned against equating its growth with well-being.

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

So what could replace GDP, or be considered alongside GDP? Should we try to measure happiness? After all, behavioural scientists are getting much better at understanding and measuring the psychology of human well-being (see the blog posts Money can’t buy me love and Happiness economics).

Or should we focus primarily on long-term issues of the sustainability of development? Or should we focus more on the distribution of income or well-being in a world that is becoming increasingly unequal?

Or should measures of well-being involve weighted composite indices involving things such as life-expectancy, education, housing, democratic engagement, leisure time, social mobility, etc. And, if so, how should the weightings of the different indicators be determined? The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) produces annual Human Development Reports, where countries are ranked according to a Human Development Index. As the UNDP site states:

The breakthrough for the HDI was the creation of a single statistic which was to serve as a frame of reference for both social and economic development. The HDI sets a minimum and a maximum for each dimension, called goalposts, and then shows where each country stands in relation to these goalposts, expressed as a value between 0 and 1.

HDI is a composite of three sets of indicators: education, life expectancy and income (see). The UNDP since 2010 has also produced an Inequality-adjusted HDI (IHDI).

The IHDI will be equal to the HDI value when there is no inequality, but falls below the HDI value as inequality rises. The difference between the HDI and the IHDI represents the ‘loss’ in potential human development due to inequality and can be expressed as a percentage.

You can now build your own HDI for each country on the UNDP site by selecting from the following indicators: health, education, income, inequality, poverty and gender.

The Nature article considers a number of measures of progress and considers their relative merits. The other articles also look at measuring national progress and well-being and at the relationship between income per head and happiness. It is clear that focusing on GDP alone provides too simplistic an approach to measuring development.

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 happiness agenda makes for miserable policy The Conversation, Daniel Sage (9/1/14)
Economic view: No matter what the politicians say, GDP is a distorted guide to economic performance and a bad way to measure prosperity Independent, Guy Hands (28/1/14)
Buy buy love The Economist (22/6/13)
Experts confirm that money does buy happiness – but only up to £22,100 Independent, Jamie Merrill (28/11/13)
Can Money Buy Happiness? Scientific American, Sonja Lyubomirsky (10/8/10)
Money can buy happiness The Economist (2/5/13)
Money can buy happiness Hacker News, pyduan (13/1/14)
Can ‘happiness economics’ provide a new framework for development? The Guardian, Christian Kroll (3/9/13)
The 10 Things Economics Can Tell Us About Happiness The Atlantic, Derek Thompson (31/5/12)
Financial crisis hits happiness levels BBC News (3/11/13)
Happiness study finds that UK is passing point of peak life satisfaction The Guardian, Larry Elliott (27/11/13)
How GDP became the figure everyone wanted to watch BBC News, Peter Day (16/4/14)
Economic development can only buy happiness up to a ‘sweet spot’ of $36,000 GDP per person Science Daily (27/11/13)


  1. What does GDP measure?
  2. How suitable a measure of economic progress is growth in GDP?
  3. How can GDP be adjusted to make it a more suitable measure of economic progress?
  4. What are the advantages of using composite indicators of well-being?
  5. What difficulties are there in measuring well-being using composite indicators?
  6. Assuming there were no measurement problems, what indicators would you include in devising the optimum composite indicator of well-being?
  7. Can money buy happiness?
  8. Why do life satisfaction levels peak at around $36,000 (adjusted for Purchasing Power Parity (PPP))?