Modern GDP statistics (“the value of goods and services produced in a given period”) have their origin in the USA around the 1930s with the work of Kuznets, who produced the first national income data in order to see the impact of the Great Depression on the US economy. They became more important during the Second World War when the UK government, prompted by Keynes, and the US government needed to be able to manage the war effort to maximum effect while still providing enough resources for consumption.
A major criticism of GDP is that it takes no account of what is produced, merely its value. As a result, disasters can be good for GDP if they involve countries reconstructing roads or buildings damaged in the disaster. War is also a good way of boosting GDP since it will involve producing more tanks, weapons and aircraft! Similarly, two forks are, in GDP terms, as useful as a knife and fork, but less useful in reality when trying to spread butter. GDP and GDP per capita also take no account of how the income is shared among the population. A rich oil producing country might have a high GDP per head but, if the income is concentrated in the hands of a few, the standard of living of the majority might be below that of a country with a lower average of GDP.
Measurement of GDP is difficult since it is impossible to measure every transaction and therefore relies on surveys e.g. the Living Costs and Food Survey for about 5,000 households and monthly surveys of approximately 45,000 businesses. The development of technology has made the measurement of GDP more difficult. The UK Government set up an inquiry under Charlie Bean – OB and former Deputy Governor of the Bank of England – who identified activities which are now much harder to measure and value such as using Google Maps rather than buying a paper OS map or streaming films rather than buying or renting DVDs. Another problem is that many things have become cheaper and better – my new DVD recorder is easier to use and records more than a previous model but, in GDP terms, it is less valuable because it is cheaper.
There have been many debates over what should be included in GDP and although these might seem largely irrelevant, they matter when trying to compare countries’ GDP. In the past certain things, such as the sale of cannabis in cafes in Holland were legal and therefore recorded while a similar purchase in Romford would not be counted. However Eurostat wanted consistency among its members and decided that all transactions for goods or services involving money were to be recorded, whether they are legal, illegal, good or bad. Therefore, in a purely numerical way, those who argue in favour of increasing GDP as being a key government objective, could argue that encouraging the sale of drugs or prostitution is as valid as increased spending on education or health – something even an economist would find hard to justify! More relevantly sales of guns in the UK are part of the shadow economy but in the US they are legal, widespread and contribute to GDP.
GDP data is particularly suspect in developing countries where a significant percentage of production takes place in the hidden economy; for example, in Zimbabwe only 6% of the labour force is formally employed. Similarly, my purchase of bottled water from Sainsbury’s is counted in the UK’s GDP, but the effort of an African villager who spends hours walking to and from a stream to collect “free” water has no value according to GDP statistics. There are also basic measurement difficulties in LDCs, such as obtaining accurate population figures, accurately measuring inflation and valuing the hidden economy, e.g. only half the maize produced in Nigeria is sold in a shop or market.
There is now a consensus that we are trying to measure too many things in our single GDP number and, although we can improve it by using GDP per head or median GDP or NNP, it is still deficient.
Economists have therefore started both to consider other possible methods of estimating economic activity and to develop alternative measures which go beyond simply the output of goods and services. One way of tackling the former is to look at light intensity to indicate economic activity in different areas with increases in intensity over time indicating growth. Such methods indicate that the proportion of economic activity occurring in villages, and not always measured, is more significant than thought and therefore the GDP of many developing countries is, similarly, larger than previously calculated. It also provides a fascinating snapshot of the difference between the North and South Korean economies.
However a major concern is how we measure the damage which our focus on output is doing to the environment. China’s focus on growth has resulted in 40% of its river water being undrinkable and one cannot always see the stars at night because of pollution. GDP does not take into account depreciation of natural resources lost to build houses and factories and damage to the environment but this is not easy to do. How does one put a monetary value on a rainforest, beautiful view or footpath by a river? One way is to make an estimate based on how much people pay to see them and, for things which benefit the environment, how much it would cost to replicate them. The UK government in 2012 formed the “Natural Capital Committee” to advise the government on things such as ‘forests, rivers, minerals and oceans’ and by 2020 the ONS must include a measure of natural capital in the UK’s national accounts. The aim is to move towards sustainable growth. Along the same lines, a US think tank has invented Earth Overshoot Day – the date when the earth used up its regenerative capacity for the year. In 2018 this occurred on 1st August.
Other measures include the Genuine Progress Index – a measure of economic welfare which is currently in use in Maryland. GDP is the base but invisible “goods” e.g. leisure time, volunteering, & housework are added while “regrettables” e.g. crime prevention spending such as burglar alarms, pollution and commuting time are subtracted. The Happy Planet Index tries to measure what matters – namely sustainable wellbeing for all and tells us how well nations are doing at achieving long, happy, sustainable lives. Some countries have followed Bhutan which developed a Gross National Happiness index which sets out priorities such as psychological well-being, health, education, living standards, good governance and ecological resilience. Before adoption, all new projects must undergo a GNH impact review. We carry out an annual happiness survey as does the OECD and many of its members. These focus on six key variables which determine happiness – GDP/head, healthy years of life expectancy, having people to turn to, trust in others, freedom to make decisions and donations to charity.