The Little Big Number: how GDP came to rule the world and what to do about it by Dirk Philipsen is out next month. As a GDP-afficionado, I was eager to read it and found it an enjoyable read and generally thought-provoking, although not agreeing with the author on all points.
My main disagreement was more about tone and exaggeration in what is a rather emotional book. There are for example assertions like: “It is safe to say our ancestors, for some 200,000 years prior to the agricultural revolution, engaged in labour only to the very extent to which it helped them survive.” Really? No cave paintings, ancient jewellry, religion? Was Stonehenge essential for survival? Or, because of our “fixation with the accumulation of things”, trying to capture the reality of late 18th century life “by saying that people were poor would represent a fundamental misread.” So were they not less well-nourished than us with more illnesses and shorter lives and many children dying in infancy? Did women (and even men) not spend hours in domestic drudgery? I don’t hesitate to call people in the 18th century poor on this basis; it’s nothing to do with a passion for accumulating cars or handbags. I don’t want more than one washing machine but wouldn’t be without the one – just like Hans Rosling’s mother.
Many readers will like the polemical tone of The Little Big Number; it’s obvious I didn’t. Apart from that, this is an interesting book looking at the history of GDP, its inadequacies as a measure of social welfare, and the environmental consequences of seeking continuing economic growth. It covers some of the same ground as my own GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History, with additional detail. The book identifies the turn to growth rather than levels of national income as a policy aim in the 1950s. Philipsen attributes this to American optimism as the victor in World War 2. I wonder if it isn’t more related to the dawning Cold War, and the need to demonstrate over and over again that the American system was superior to the Soviet one? Geoff Tily (pdf) pinpoints an OECD document of 1961 as the first official reference to targetting growth, so quite a while after the end of the Second World War. (And as ever for anyone who hasn’t read it, I highly recommend Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty.)
The Soviet bloc used Net Material Product as their definition of ‘the economy’. The statistics were highly suspect, even those calculated as a best effort by the CIA; it wasn’t really until the mid-1980s, with glasnost, that the true, sustained weakness of growth in the planned economies became evident. There is a nice anecdote in the book: “Once Soviet archives opened to historical research in the years after 1991, we learned that American GDP figures of the Soviet national economy had been far more accurate than estimates provided by the Soviet Union’s own economic planners, who found it near-impossible to come up with reliable data for their centralized planned economy. What did Soviet planners do? They spied on American economists calculating Soviet GDP, and then incorporated what they learned from their American colleagues into their own planning.” Of course, the Americans were spying on the Soviets to get the basic data. Who knows what the figures meant? But the queues and shortages and poor quality of goods were all real.
The second half of the book looks at the ‘Beyond GDP’ debate, although oddly asserting that nobody paid much attention to the issues between Robert Kennedy’s assassination and Congressional hearings in 2001. This is a little US-centric; the global environmental movement kept the candle burning for alternatives all through that period. Philipsen concurs with the kinds of indicator like the Global Progress Index that show progress coming to a complete halt in the 1970s. This always seems absurd to me: even if that was a real turning point in terms of costs to the environment, which gets a heavy weight in the alternative index, there has been a lot of welfare-enhancing innovation and straightforward growth since the 1970s. It’s not just the invention of tamoxifen or the internet, but the fact that more westerners live in houses with phones, indoor toilets and central heating. Sure, there’s a trade-off with the environment but is that really no progress? Nor is Philipsen interested in the issues about defining either market output or social welfare for the growing category of digital goods that are often free and have strong public good characteristics.
As for what to do about it, the book advocates ditching GDP completely, and having a national dialogue about economic goals based on the principles of sustainability, equity, democratic accountability and economic viability. It isn’t clear how this prescription fits with the several ‘dashboard’ initiatives under way now, which are described here. The dashboard approach is attractive, as is public consultation. However, it isn’t yet clear which dashboard is best or what should go in it – it’s easy to end up with a laundry list of good things, and no analytical framework for assessing outcomes or trade-offs. So the real need now is for the hard grind of the kind that Kuznets, Stone and Meade and their many colleagues sustained through the 1930s and 40s in creating the national accounts to make a GDP-plus set of social accounts practical.
I still think dropping GDP altogether would be a mistake – hence ‘affectionate’. How would a government run fiscal policy or a central bank monetary policy without a nominal GDP figure and some of the national accounts detail? The national accounts statistics as a whole also contain a lot of the material that could furnish a meaningful dashboard, so again it would be a waste of an intellectual asset to ditch all of that.
However, the answer to the underlying question, are we going to move ‘beyond GDP’ is: yes.