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Measuring Growth Democratically

For decades, gross domestic product has captured the attention of economists and policymakers around the world, offering a single, simple proxy for economic growth. Yet for all of its convenience, it is a poor proxy for human progress, and could easily be improved with a complementary metric that weighs citizens more equally.

WASHINGTON, DC – Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, two of this year’s recipients of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, are the latest among leading economists to remind us that gross domestic product is an imperfect measure of human welfare. The Human Development Index, published by the United Nations Development Programme, aggregates indicators of life expectancy, education, and per capita income and has long been available as an alternative to per capita income alone. In 2008, Joseph E. Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, and Jean-Paul Fitoussi outlined the many failures of GDP for the French government-sponsored Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress. Subsequent OECD-sponsored work elaborated on their findings, and related research by the Brookings Institution’s Carol Graham (on subjective wellbeing) and Duke University’s Matthew Adler (on the measurement of social welfare) has received well-deserved acclaim.

Nonetheless, GDP continues to reign supreme in the halls of power. Policymakers around the world are constantly awaiting the latest quarterly data on GDP growth, and variations of one-tenth of a percentage point are regarded as significant indicators of macroeconomic performance. The International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook may include in-depth analysis across a wide range of topics, but it always starts with GDP.

To see why treating GDP growth as a proxy for progress even in terms of income alone is highly problematic, consider the case of a country with ten citizens and a GDP of $190, where nine citizens start with $10 each and the tenth citizen starts with $100. (Moreover, assume that GDP is equal to national income, so that net factor income from abroad is zero.)

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