It's Time to Retire Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a Measure of Prosperity
(April 18, 2014)
What if we used wellness (Gross Domestic Happiness) as a metric for prosperity rather than GDP?
Distilling an economy's success in delivering "prosperity" to a single number
has outlived its purpose. Zachary Karabell describes the birth of GDP in far
less complex times in (Mis)leading Indicators: Why Our Economic Numbers Distort Reality
A GDP that is growing in sync with expectations can enhance a country’s reputation and thus its strength and power. A GDP that is contracting or failing to meet expectations, on the other hand, can lead to disaster. Yet a hundred years ago, the concept of GDP did not exist; history unfolded without it. The United States, for example, managed to win its independence, fight a civil war, and conquer a continent without any measure of national income.The problem is this radical reductionism at the heart of any single measure is irrevocably flawed:
Leading indicators were invented to measure the economies of the industrial nation-states of the mid-twentieth century. In their time, they did so brilliantly. The twenty-first century, however, is proving more challenging to measure. Industrial nation-states have given way to developed economies rich in services and to emerging industrial economies exporting goods made by multinational companies. The statistics of the 20th century were not designed for such a reality, and despite the assiduous efforts of statisticians, they cannot keep up.The limitations of GDP are so severe that the number is at best misleading. Karabell identifies three intrinsic flaws in any single-number scheme to measure GDP:
1. GDP does not include vast swaths of economic output and value
2. GDP is useless in measuring real-world trade
3. GDP counts digging a hole and filling it but not conservation of energy or resources.
If a steel mill produces pollution that then requires a cleanup, both the initial output (the steel) and the cost of addressing its byproduct (the cleanup) add to GDP. So, too, would the cost of health care for any workers or residents injured or sickened by the pollution. Conversely, if a company replaces its conventional light bulbs with long-lasting LED bulbs and, as a result, spends less on lighting and electricity, the efficiency gains would detract from GDP. Yet few would argue that the pollution example represents a positive development or that the lighting example constitutes a negative one.The simplistic assignment of "import" and "export" completely misses the reality of modern manufacture and trade, where parts come from multiple nations. As Karabell explains:
If trade numbers more accurately accounted for how products are made, it is possible that the United States would not have any trade deficit at all with China. The problem, in short, is that trade figures are currently calculated based on the assumption that each product has a single country of origin and that the declared value of that product goes to that country. Thus, every time an iPhone or an iPad rolls off the factory floors of Foxconn (Apple’s main contractor in China) and travels to the port of Long Beach, California, it is counted as an import from China.I have addressed this issue for years, for example: Trade War with China: Who Benefits? (April 11, 2007)
Trade and "Trade War" with China: Who Benefits? (October 5, 2010)
No single number, regardless of the inputs, can possibly reflect the real economy.
How entrepreneurs run effective businesses; how individuals buy homes, pay for college, or retire -- none of those decisions should be based on the leading indicators of the last century. Old attachments to those indicators, and to the myth that there is something called “the economy” that affects all people equally, poses a major obstacle to progress.Karabell also discusses what I call the propaganda value of GDP:
These measurements were not invented to serve as absolute markers of national success or failure or to indicate whether some governments were visionary and others destructive. But the transformation of these numbers from statistics into markers of national success happened so quickly over the course of a few decades that no one quite noticed what was happening.I tend to think political authorities knew exactly what was happening: they realized that their own credibility could be boosted by a rigged GDP number. Thus we have the central government of China issuing blatantly bogus claims of 7+% annual GDP, as anything less will severely erode their claim of managerial brilliance.
In our own propaganda-dependent state, GDP is almost always positive, much like corporate earnings always beat expectations by a penny.
But we should be paying attention to an even deeper critique of GDP: that prosperity no longer depends of the "growth" of consumption, financialization, etc. but on the Degrowth of narcissistic consumerism and more efficient use of resources and capital.
What if we used Bhutan's guiding national policy of
Gross Domestic Happiness, as a metric for prosperity?
A second-generation GNH concept, treating happiness as a socioeconomic development metric, was proposed in 2006 by Med Jones, the President of International Institute of Management. The metric measures socioeconomic development by tracking seven development areas including the nation's mental and emotional health.GNH value is proposed to be an index function of the total average per capita of the following measures:
Here in the U.S., we give lip-service to all these values, but ask yourself: where do we spend most of our time? Serving our masters in the State/crony-cartel economy, creating GDP.
Yes, we all still need to earn a livelihood, but imagine a society constructed around generating Gross Domestic Happiness instead of GDP. The power structure would collapse because none of these activities generate enough profits or taxes to keep the Machine operational.
It is a sad statement that we often only awaken to real value and meaning when we've run out
of time to change the way we "invest" our time.
Want to give an enduringly practical graduation gift? Then give my new book Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy, a mere $9.95 for the Kindle ebook edition and $17.76 for the print edition.
Join me on May 2 for the Sonoma Wine Country Conference: Investment Ideas Hidden In Plain Sight: great speakers, good cause (benefits Autism Society of America):
Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy (Kindle, $9.95)(print, $20)
Are you like me?
Ever since my first summer job decades ago, I've been chasing financial security. Not win-the-lottery, Bill Gates riches (although it would be nice!), but simply a feeling of financial control. I want my financial worries to if not disappear at least be manageable and comprehensible.
And like most of you, the way I've moved toward my goal has always hinged not just on having a job but a career.
You don't have to be a financial blogger to know that "having a job" and "having a career" do not mean the same thing today as they did when I first started swinging a hammer for a paycheck.
Even the basic concept "getting a job" has changed so radically that jobs--getting and keeping them, and the perceived lack of them--is the number one financial topic among friends, family and for that matter, complete strangers.
So I sat down and wrote this book: Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy.
It details everything I've verified about employment and the economy, and lays out an action plan to get you employed.
I am proud of this book. It is the culmination of both my practical work experiences and my financial analysis, and it is a useful, practical, and clarifying read.
NOTE: Contributions/subscriptions are acknowledged in the order received. Your name and email remain confidential and will not be given to any other individual, company or agency.
"This guy is THE leading visionary on reality.
He routinely discusses things which no one else has talked about, yet,
turn out to be quite relevant months later."
"You shine a bright and piercing light out into an ever-darkening world."
Or send coins, stamps or quatloos via mail--please request P.O. Box address.
Subscribers ($5/mo) and those who have contributed $50 or more annually (or made multiple contributions totalling $50 or more) receive weekly exclusive Musings Reports via email ($50/year is about 96 cents a week).
Each weekly Musings Report offers five features:
At readers' request, there is also a $10/month option.
What subscribers are saying about the Musings (Musings samples here):
The "unsubscribe" link is for when you find the usual drivel here insufferable.
Dwolla members can subscribe to the Musings Reports with a one-time $50 payment:
The Heroes & Heroines of New Media:
oftwominds.com contributors and subscribers
All content, HTML coding, format design, design elements and images copyright © 2014 Charles Hugh Smith, All global rights reserved in all media, unless otherwise credited or noted.
I am honored if you link to this essay, or print a copy for your own use.
Terms of Service:
Making your Amazon purchases
through this Search Box helps
at no cost to you: