Opinion

Edward Hadas

Don’t obsess about GDP measures

Edward Hadas
Feb 22, 2012 14:57 UTC

An American, a Frenchman and a physicist were talking about some unusual weather. “It was twice as hot this afternoon as this morning”, said the American, “the temperature went up from 40 to 80 degrees.” The Frenchman interjected: “That’s in Fahrenheit. In Celsius, it was six times hotter.” The physicist was scornful. “On the only really scientific measure, the Kelvin scale, the increase was a piffling 5 percent.”

Who’s right? Well, all the measures are accurate and it certainly was hotter. But no single ratio – whether twice, six times or 5 percent – captures just how much hotter it actually felt. The feeling of hotness, like the feelings of pain or anger, cannot be measured with genuine precision.

It is the same for the feeling of prosperity – any measure will be arbitrary and quite possibly misleading. Consider gross domestic product, the most common index of economic success. GDP is the sum of spending on everything in the economy, from shoes to shoe-shines, from cars to child care. In comparing countries with each other or over time, GDP is usually adjusted for inflation to calculate what is ambitiously called “real GDP”. It is then often divided by the population, creating “real GDP per person”. This is usually measured in “constant dollars” and, for 2011 in the United States, becomes $43,149 of 2005 dollars.

Economists recognise that GDP is far from perfect. In 2009, a French government commission suggested that it should be augmented by measures of the distribution of wealth, environmental sustainability and “quality of life”. The Human Development Index, which is widely used by the United Nations, combines GDP with life expectancy and years of schooling.

These modifications are welcome, but they fail to correct GDP’s main weakness – that is what might be called the fallacy of precision. The human meaning of prosperity simply cannot be reduced to numbers. Supposedly exact measures generally confuse more than they illuminate.

The dangerous power of negative thinking

Edward Hadas
Oct 12, 2011 16:35 UTC

Another recession could be about to arrive, or even be here already. Some people fear it will be as bad as the last one, which reduced output in the U.S., euro zone and Japan by 5.1, 5.5 and 8.9 percent respectively. Those GDP declines are often described in cataclysmic terms: staggering, disastrous or traumatic. Such words are vast – and dangerous – exaggerations.

Even at the trough of the last recession in 2009, real GDP in most rich countries was as high as it had been five or six years earlier – when economic conditions were not considered particularly bad. And that comparison is too harsh on the 2009 consumer experience, which included iPhones and the Airbus A380 super jumbo jets, both better than the comparably valued goods available in 2003.

Americans and Europeans have little enough reason to moan about their recessions; citizens of the world have much less. For mankind as a whole, the small travails of the wealthy are much less important than the entry of the truly poor into the modern economy. Industrial production in emerging economies, a good measure of that development, has increased at a heartening 6 percent annual rate over the last decade, according to the most recent data from Dutch consultants CPB. The recession reversed two years’ progress, but only briefly.

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