The End of GDP ?

There is a longish article on the value (and misuse) of the GDP stats in the Sunday NYT magazine. The author lays out the case that the US will, over the next few years, supplement or perhaps even replace GDP as the ultimate measure of economic growth.

In its place? Several 100 metrics that measure all manner of other factors, both quantitative and qualitative.

This is intriguing, for numerous reasons. First, of all the official economic data points the government releases, GDP is the easiest to game — you simply under-report inflation, and GDP appears to be better than it is. And ever since the Boskin Commission’s misbehavior (I call it a cowardly theft from the elderly), we have been dramatically under-reporting inflation data. Hence, we have nearly two decades of bogus GDP data in the can.

Second, and perhaps more significantly, GDP simply measures how much stuff we produce, buy and sell, and the folks we hire to make that stuff. It ignores all manner of other elements that go into that process.

I am not suggesting that GDP is a valueless measure (at least, if it were somewhat more accurate). But it is woefully incomplete. And the impact of making policy towards GDP has had very specific, corporate benefits. If we were to incorporate other more human factors, the net result could be quite substantial.

I wonder if we might see some sort of a pushback on this, especially from the Randians and Chicago-ites.

Regardless, it is a worthwhile topic to think about, if you are at all interested in how the government deploys its substantial resources into the economy.

Here is an excerpt:

“Whatever you may think progress looks like — a rebounding stock market, a new house, a good raise — the governments of the world have long held the view that only one statistic, the measure of gross domestic product, can really show whether things seem to be getting better or getting worse. G.D.P. is an index of a country’s entire economic output — a tally of, among many other things, manufacturers’ shipments, farmers’ harvests, retail sales and construction spending. It’s a figure that compresses the immensity of a national economy into a single data point of surpassing density. The conventional feeling about G.D.P. is that the more it grows, the better a country and its citizens are doing. In the U.S., economic activity plummeted at the start of 2009 and only started moving up during the second half of the year. Apparently things are moving in that direction still. In the first quarter of this year, the economy again expanded, this time by an annual rate of about 3.2 percent.

All the same, it has been a difficult few years for G.D.P. For decades, academics and gadflies have been critical of the measure, suggesting that it is an inaccurate and misleading gauge of prosperity . . . In the U.S., one challenge to the G.D.P. is coming not from a single new index, or even a dozen new measures, but from several hundred new measures — accessible free online for anyone to see, all updated regularly. Such a system of national measurements, known as State of the USA, will go live online this summer. Its arrival comes at an opportune moment, but it has been a long time in the works. In 2003, a government official named Chris Hoenig was working at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, and running a group that was researching ways to evaluate national progress. Since 2007, when the project became independent and took the name State of the USA, Hoenig has been guided by the advice of the National Academy of Sciences, an all-star board from the academic and business worlds and a number of former leaders of federal statistical agencies. Some of the country’s elite philanthropies — including the Hewlett, MacArthur and Rockefeller foundations — have provided grants to help get the project started. “

That’s your weekend homework assignment . . .


The Rise and Fall of the G.D.P.
NYT Sunday Magazine May 10, 2010

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