Here’s a book title that wears its heart on its cover. Lorenzo Fioramonti’s Gross Domestic Problem: the politics behind the world’s most powerful number gives you the essence of the argument upfront. If I had to sum it up as an elevator pitch, it would be Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth view (that economic growth is environmentally unaffordable and unnecessary for welfare) meets the left-wing belief that the military-industrial complex is in control of the economy for its own purposes. I don’t agree with either, although my disagreement is sympathetic.
Start with growth and the environmental costs. It is surely obvious to all but a small minority that measuring better the impact of economic activity on the environment is vital. My preference is to monitor the depletion of natural assets of all kinds, a balance sheet approach automatically injecting the longer-term perspective necessary for sustainability – there is much on this in The Economics of Enough. But any kind of environmental dashboard would be welcome. What drives me to distraction is the persistent belief that we should just stop economic growth because it’s not making us happy. This is simply incorrect – this book cites no research on the question later than 1997. Subsequent research has clearly established a strong link between GDP per capita growth and measured ‘happiness’ – see for example this recent paper on happiness and GDP, and the references in it. Besides, just think – no growth means no innovation, no redistribution (it has never happened outside a rapidly growing economy), rising unemployment (unless companies are banned from improving their productivity ever). The misguided belief that growth won’t make people happier is dangerous because it will prevent any practical politics of sustainability.
On the book’s political arguments, it’s obvious post-crisis that conventional, mainstream economics has been wrong to ignore the politics of finance and the lobbying power of the banking industry. Brett Christophers’ new book, Banking Across Borders, is a fascinating historical account of how that power developed – including its use of the mantra of GDP – in the post-war era. By contrast, Gross Domestic Problem offers some assertions: “GDP served the interests of political and economic elites for several decades” – OK; “European member states came to accept that only if GDP went up could they afford to pay for schools, hospitals and social security” – er, the Stability and Growth Pact to which this refers aimed to cap government deficits, but raising taxes to pay for public services was never ruled out, certainly not by reference to GDP; “Between 1948 and 1989 American economic growth was largely dependent on military spending” – really? I agree the military budget is high but is it really true that every innovation in the post-war period had no impact on growth? Utterly implausible.
One particular confusion that many commentators on GDP make is muddling up this measure of economic activity with the measurement of economic welfare. Economics has always been clear about the distinction. Simon Kuznets, one of the creators of GDP and the national accounts, advocated a measure of welfare instead but lost the argument – this book presents his work as criticism of the definition of GDP, but the quotes here date from a 1937 book in which he was pitching for a welfare approach instead. The production demands of the war – when the military-industrial complex was indeed powerful – swung it in favour of GDP instead.
I do think these seemingly dry questions of measurement are important, and that measurement choices affect the way people behave. However, Gross Domestic Problem is an unsubtle and confused take on the question of GDP. GDP is one measure of economic growth – there could be others, and economic growth is highly desirable, in my view, subject to the huge challenge of moving towards sustainability. Measuring the economy’s size differs from measuring society’s welfare, but they are linked. It’s high time political economy was revived, but understanding how elites acquire economic power deserves some serious social science research rather than conventional assertions.