Accounting for progress

I read Stephen Macekura’s The Mismeasure of Progress: Economic Growth and its Critics in proof, and just enjoyed reading it again now it’s been published. People who know about my work won’t be surprised to hear that this is just my cup of tea. The question preoccupies me as much as it ever did – what counts as progress and how do we count it? – along, increasingly, with the issue of who gets to answer the question.

There are now quite a few books about the limitations of GDP, or history of GDP, or both (eg as well as my GDP: A Brief But Affectionate History, Matthias Schmelzer’s The Hegemony of Growth, Philip Lepenies The Power of a Single Number, Ehsan Masood’s The Great Invention, Brett Chrostophers’ Banking Across Boundaries, and more). So Macekura has this recent literature to build on as well as older classics including Alain Desrosieres and Theodore Porter. What he brings is a unified story about the critics of GDP and the System of National Accounts told from the 1940s on, and particularly including the perspective of the economists and statisticians working on or in developing economies.

That the arcana of economic statistics matter is clear from the start: “Accounting and accountability are closely intertwined,” Macekura writes. His framework is James Scott‘s powerful concept of state ‘legibility’. This makes the imperialist habit clear when it comes to the history of national accounting in the colonies of western powers. As one Colonial Office official put it, the UK had to ‘level up’ its colonies, and would do so by increasing their GDP growth. Hmmm. That term is oddly familiar.

The heroes of the tale in some ways are economists such as Phyllis Deane of NIESR and Dudles Seers, founder of the Institute for Development Studies, for their appreciation that economies are not all the same. The fabric of life in low income countries was profoundly different from the standard framework it was supposed to fit. However, western critics of the focus on economic growth – whether for this reason or because of the increasing concern with environmental limits – were in turn criticised by some economists and others from the countries concerned, who considered that to not prioritise growth was a western luxury. “The Limits To Growth report [1972] prompted a strong backlash from experts in the Global South,” Macekura notes. He goes on to argue that, “Growth critics often sought to replace one set of numbers in governance with another. They mounted a technocratic critique of technocracy that claimed the basic problems of contemporary life could be resolved through the use of socially relevant and more specialized data.”

The book ends with a picture of the critics of growth and of GDP (overlapping but certainly not identical sets) in recent times, flagging questions such as the measurement of the financial sector, as well as the ever-more pressing sustainability issues. He ends with a call for a wider set of metrics but also for enfranchising people to participate in the debate about progress. There is certainly quite widespread interest in matters of measurement, for all kinds of reasons, now. GDP is rapidly losing its legitimacy but the need for the social accounts that enable accountability is more important than ever.



It’s all in Kuznets….

I just re-read, or read properly, Simon Kuznets’ 1966 book Modern Economic Growth. (A sliver of silver lining in libraries closing or getting rid of old books is that you can sometimes find them at low prices online, although also sometimes at algorithmically weird ones.) It turns out that all the new debates are actually old debates. A few points leapt out at me on this reading.

First, Kuznets’ insistence that: “[T]he definition of national product used for measuring economic growth embodies the accepted notions of the means and ends of economic activity, reflecting the main features of modern economic society.” When society changes, the relevant concept changes. “If we are to understand modern economic growth, we must measure its magnitudes in terms of the modern system of means, ends and values.” This certainly speaks to my view that GDP is fitting society decreasingly well.

A second point is the definition of a sector – I’m puzzling now over the relevance of lengthening supply chains and implications for thinking about both sectors and productivity in the process innovation sense. A sector is defined by the raw materials it uses, the production process and the finished product. “A marked change in one … is usually the basis for distinguishing and defining a new industry.” His example is the emergence of rayon although it served the same market as cotton textiles.

There are many more fascinating reflections – including the disparity between definitions of intermediate consumption and investment for the corporate and household sectors – why is household expenditure on commuting not an intermediate, or on education not part of investment? A book well worth revisiting. And an interesting counterfactual question – what society would we have now if Keynes’s GDP-style measure had not trumped Kuznets’ economic-welfare conception of aggregate output back in 1940?



Private and public value

Mariana Mazzucato’s The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy was my Bank Holiday weekend reading. I’m entirely sympathetic to her underlying argument that a well-functioning and growing economy requires both state and market institutions to be effective; and that the opposition between the meddling state and the ‘free’ market is a bogus dichotomy. While some on the political right still see state and market as inevitably in opposition, the tide of opinion has surely decisively turned against this high-1980s trope? After all, in the UK the Conservatives too see the need for an industrial strategy, with a clear role for the government in investing and co-ordinating.

The book has four stages. The first is a summary of the history of economic thought concerning the creation of value in the economy, from mercantilism through the physiocrats to the classical economists (Smith and Marx) and then the marginalist revolution and neoclassical economics. The importance of the final step, Robbins and positivism, gets a mention but is underplayed perhaps. This section sets the scene for arguing that there is nothing inevitable about our current framing of what creates economic value.

The second stage is a summary of the history of the development of GDP as the measure of economic progress, including the treatment of finance in the national accounts. This is all well-known to me for obvious reasons, but I think also to others, given there have been a dozen or so books about economic measurement/GDP in the past few years (including mine, and most recently David Pilling with The Growth Delusion (2018)). Mazzucato makes great play of the way the definition of the financial sector has become ever more expansive to make finance look increasingly important to the economy; the authoritative work on this, including the now-notorious ‘FISIM’ definition, is Banking Across Boundaries (2013) by Brett Christophers. Mazzucato then segues into a section on the financialisation of the economy, including the pernicious effects of the ‘shareholder value’ doctrine and stock option schemes for executives.

Finally, she reprises her arguments in The Entrepreneurial State about the role of the state in innovation, the need for taxpayers to get a bigger share in the returns, and a wider riff about the growth of monopoly rents due to excessive intellectual property protection (Exhibit A is the pharmaceutical industry) and market power (the digital giants). In these contexts, she argues, more state intervention would make markets work better. In an echo of the wider debate about economic institutions, she argues that the Anglo-Saxon structures have become extractive or exploitative, rather than value-creating. I was briefly excited by her use of the term ‘public value’, with the BBC as an example; but she does not reference the political science literature on public value or that the BBC actually implemented formal public value processes. The book instead links the term to Elinor Ostrom’s work on collective decisions (wonderful as it is).

I have a few quibbles. For example, Mazzucato several times refers to GDP as a measure of legal marketed activities; the formal definition now includes illegal marketed activities. It would have reinforced her argument had she pointed out the absurdity of GDP including prostitution while excluding childcare in the home. I found aspects of her description of the production boundary confusing (and it features prominently through the book as an expository device), no doubt because my mind is shaped by the current formal definition in the SNA. This is GDP-nerd territory.

Overall, The Value of Everything is a powerful contribution to the public debate about the kind of economy and society we want. The argument that the political/financial system has become exploitative  will strike a chord with many readers. Mazzucato does not give practical policy advice here. But I’m sure this book by such an influential economist will have a big impact in contributing to the shaping of a different, and more productive, climate of opinion about government and markets.


Growth, no growth, degrowth

I just read the 2nd edition of Tim Jackson’s now-classic Prosperity Without Growth, which has been out for a few months, and it’s a book I’d recommend to anyone but especially economics students. Although most students do now learn about environmental constraints and trade-offs, we do socialize them quickly into thinking about economic growth as the objective of policy. It is all too clear that the failure to take account of externalities and the depletion of natural capital assets means we’ve paid a high price for past growth. Measuring these better to ensure they’re incorporated in the choices society makes is part of my own research.

Havings said this, and commending the book, I have one central problem with its argument, as with some others making similar arguments. And that turns on the understanding of what (GDP) growth consists in. Even those who acknowledge the importance of services in the economy – as Tim Jackson does – then consistently talk about growth as consumer demand for material products, for stuff: “How is it that with so much stuff already we still hunger for more? Would it not be better to halt the relentless pursuit of growth in the advanced economies and concentrate instead on sharing out the available resources more equitably?” So stuff and growth are conflated.

As I’ve been pointing out for 20 years, growth in the advanced economies is increasingly non-material – accepting that we import stuff embodied in goods, which must be accounted for. The archetype of modern growth is a new idea – that an aspirin can avert cardio-vascular problems as well as cure headaches; that apps on one device can replace multiple material objects.

This is why indicators like the Genuine Progress Indicator, that flatline from the 1970s on while GDP rises, are so unpersuasive. I disagree with Tim when he writes: “[T]he continued pursuit of economic growth doesn’t appear to advance and may impede human happiness.” So although I agree completely that the usefulness of GDP as a welfare measure is declining, I don’t think we know how to weigh against each other the environmental minuses and innovation pluses. This is why I’m obsessed with how we conceptualise and measure society’s economic welfare, including measuring assets to give us a handle on sustainability; but many of the innovations do advance human well-being. I remember the 1970s, and though the music was better, many aspects of life were far less satisfying. Patti Smith and Siouxsie & the Banshees aren’t enough to make me want to turn the clock back.

This is an important, possibly existential debate, so I hope the book is being widely read. I also appreciate its (only slightly lukewarm) defence of economics: contrary to the impression some environmetalists seem to give, many economists care passionately about our environment and sustainability, & we think our intellectual tools can make a useful contribution.


True wealth

Klaxon: this week sees the publication of National Wealth: What is Missing, Why It Matters, edited by Kirk Hamilton and Cameron Hepburn. The book is a collection based on the Wealth Project, itself a follow up to work by the World Bank on measurement for sustainability. As sustainability inevitably involves thinking about the future, there is a need to measure an economy’s stocks of different kinds of capital assets rather than current income or consumption flows (which is what our GDP lens does).

I have a chapter in the book about the political economy of moving to a new framework of economic indicators from the current system of national accounts. This is a shift analogous to changing a global technical standard, in which enough key participants have to make the move to tip everyone else into following suit. I conclude, though, that for this to come about there has to be enough consensus about what new standard to move to, which is still a work in progress. There’s a proliferation of dashboards and alternative indices. We need just one framework to get the shift.