Economic progress

It’s reading week here so I’ve had the luxury of an afternoon in my office, thinking quietly about my favourite subject, economic statistics and their meaning. I picked up Colin Clark’s The Conditions of Economic Progress from the shelf: “The securing of an abundant supply of these goods and services, though among the most important objects of economic science, is by no means the only object. We properly include among the objects of economic science the attaining of a just distribution of wealth between individuals and groups, and security of their livelihoods, the mitigation of economic fluctuations, and the increase in leisure, though recognising that these objects are sometimes inconsistent with each other.” To improve the trade-offs, he continues, we need “disciplined study of the facts.”

Hear, hear. The question of the aims of economic policy (and economic science) came up at the conference I attended this morning, organised by my politics and development colleagues in honour of the late, great Sammy Finer. For policy debate has become narrowly focused on GDP growth, and it isn’t obvious how anybody can break out of the cycle: media criticise politicians on economic growth record – politicians obsess about GDP – statistical effort is dominated by GDP figures – published GDP figures grab media attention.

I guess my hope is that modernising economic statistics will inject some humility about taking the GDP statistics as accurate gospel, and ultimately lead to some conceptual work on measuring economic welfare better than current statistics allow us to do. Hence some of my recent posts – this for the latest NIESR Review and this for the FT’s The Exchange blog.

Back to Colin Clark.

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