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?

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Agreeing about GDP, disagreeing about the beyond

It’s always a pleasure for me to have a new book about GDP or economic statistics more generally to read (no surprise!) – and this is no longer such a niche taste as it once was. So I very much enjoyed Lorenzo Fioramonti’s The World After GDP: Politics, Business and Society in the Post-Growth Era, a sequel to his Gross Domestic Problem.

The book rightly points to the fact that the many known flaws with GDP as a measure of economic welfare are becoming still more severe. The environmental issues are obvious. There have been longstanding critiques of the omission of much ‘household production’ (although not, as the book seems to suggest, all informal economic activity as it is household services such as cleaning and childcare that are left out; household products such as food is included in the definition of GDP). Still, as the book observes, GDP conceives of firms and governments as productive and households as non-productive and while this has some logic in terms of transactions, it has none in terms of economic welfare.

The digital transformation of the economy is making measurement ever harder: “One of the crucial flaws of GDP is its inability to capture the dynamic value embedded in all sorts of innovations, especially when they reduce costs, distribute access and increase what economists call ‘consumer surplus’.”

Fioramonti also highlights the political economy of GDP – its role as a sole criterion for assessing success or failure, and the growing ‘administrative uses’ such as debt and deficit rules expressed as a percentage of GDP, distorting policies. Unlike Ehsan Masood (in The Great Invention), who argues for a replacement for GDP, Fioramonti favours a suite of indicators. I don’t know which I think is better – there is a strong argument for needing more than one dimension of measurement but there are too many dashboards and sets of goals already. And perhaps people can only pay attention to one summary statistic? Either way, as Fioramonti says here, economic transformations go hand in hand with transformed measurement frameworks.

He makes some points I hadn’t considered and will think about more. For instance, the switch from GNP (the total output of all nationally-owned entities) to GDP (the total output produced within the national territory) provided “an accounting system in support of neoliberal economic globalization,” he writes. That ‘in support of’ suggests intentionality – I don’t know what the historical process was but doubt this was the case. However, it’s an interesting question whether the switch enabled or encouraged globalization (I’ll overlook the n-word).

While there’s much I agree with, there are also points on which I disagree, sometimes strongly. For instance, there is a truly bizarre section on competition, which Fioramonti sees as a wholly negative phenomenon, creating negative externalities. He alludes to competition as ‘random, disorganized interactions’, and yet at the same time describes it as a top down, and centralized process. I’m not sure how he thinks the technological change he refers to elsewhere happens without rivalry between businesses, and clearly sees markets as centralized – but then, how does competition come in to it? He argues also for localized, co-operative production which seems to me a largely romantic dream, which is feasible for some kinds of business (including, perhaps ironically, some ‘sharing’ platforms), but does not scale to an economy capable of providing goods and services to the population as a whole. This section cites Eleanor Ostrom, whose work is indeed marvellous, highlighting the range of possible collective economic institutions, other than markets and centralized states. However, she also underlines that the institutions she explores cannot function beyond a certain scale. The idea that all or many of the products and services in modern economies could be produced at homespun scale is a nonsense. But then, I also think the idea of a post-growth era overlooks the intangible character of modern growth and anyway requires some honesty about what the politics of no-growth would be like – think 10 years of stagnant real earnings, not cosy homesteading.
Still, a certain amount of disagreement adds savour to the book. I really enjoyed reading it, and so will anyone interested in the GDP and measurement debates – and there are plenty of you out there.

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