Friday, 27 April 2018

Down with the cult of GDP

Catherine Colebrook in The Guardian


 

‘We don’t properly understand how new forms of “intangible assets” – such as software and databases – are affecting the economy.’ Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty Images


This morning at 9.30am, the Office for National Statistics will release its latest estimate of UK economic output – gross domestic product, or GDPfor short. The figures, which will be revised when better data becomes available, will be endlessly discussed and analysed, and will form the basis for economic commentary and policy in the months ahead.

At their best, economic indicators such as GDP can be a viewfinder through which we see the economy. After all, we need statistics to shed light on economic imbalances and unfairness, and help citizens and policymakers understand what needs to be done to put them right. But as an economist, I’m always aware that reducing the unimaginable complexity and diversity of the economy to a single number – or even a series of numbers – can dehumanise or even misrepresent what is really happening in people’s lives.

Getting that full, accurate picture of the economy has always been difficult. But the pace at which disruptive technologies are changing our economy is shifting the nature of the challenge from one year to the next. There’s now a real risk that the favoured selection of go-to economic indicators doesn’t capture the impact of those new technologies on economic behaviour and trends.

For instance, digitalisation – the increasing prevalence of information and communication technologies, and of the internet in work and social life – is having a rapid and profound impact on the economy. One challenge it poses for economists is that it is moving whole swaths of activity beyond what we call the “production boundary”, which is captured by GDP. We need to find new ways of measuring these if we are to obtain an accurate picture of what’s actually happening in the economy.

Profit-shifting by companies to minimise their UK tax liabilities is a well-known phenomenon, and it’s likely to be increasing our current account deficit, as it means companies sending income to lower-tax countries. We need to understand the effect of this better, and find ways to measure and account for it. We also fail to properly understand how new forms of “intangible assets” – such as software, databases and knowledge acquired through research – are affecting the economy, while the way in which technology adds value to goods and services is also changing.

Public policy to steer the economy will succeed in its aims only if it is informed by both accurate economic indicators to provide the macroeconomic context, and credible evidence of its impact via robust evaluation, so we need to keep investing in our public data if it is to remain relevant. But it’s not just a case of improving the statistics we currently focus on. Our reliance on a small number of production indicators narrows economic debate and perpetuates the myth that economic growth encompasses all other economic goals. Simply tracking GDP and a small number of production statistics is not enough; and it may even undermine progress towards a more just economy, as it distracts attention from the issues that really matter.

If we want to understand whether the economy is really delivering for its citizens, we need some new indicators. The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), where I am the chief economist, is proposing a dashboard of five outcome indicators, to be updated annually, which would directly measure our progress against the outcomes the public wants the economy to deliver – broadly shared prosperity, justice and sustainability. Our chosen indicators are the distribution of the gains from growth; poverty rates among children and adults; levels of wellbeing among individuals at different income levels; the gap between the median income of the poorest region of the UK and the richest; and the gap between projected carbon emissions and the cost-effective path to decarbonisation.

Together, these indicators reveal how broadly the economy distributes its rewards, whether it is succeeding at reducing poverty, whether people feel satisfied with their lives, and our progress at moving to an environmentally sustainable model of growth. Our suggested indicators are not the only ways of measuring these goals, but between them, we believe they would capture the current performance of the economy in achieving the outcomes that matter most. If the economy doesn’t show improvement by the metrics we have chosen, it isn’t working.

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