For almost 40 years the defining measure of a country’s national economic health has been GDP (Gross Domestic Product).
As such, my monthly Key Indicators have focused on various specific aspects, such as oil prices, factory output or investment decisions and the like. This time, however, given that the summer is generally a time to pause and reflect, the Key Indicator considers this notion of how we measure national economic health.
There are signs of a growing resistance to using such a simplistic measure as GDP to compare the relative success of national economies.
For example, Evan Davies, the BBC’s former economics editor argues: “It is barely an exaggeration to say it has been fetishised in economics, despite obvious weaknesses in its capacity to encapsulate a whole economy in a single number” in an article analysing where economists have been going wrong.
National economies are, he argues, both too complex and too theoretically based on mathematical models.
This is a theme also in the work of Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel laureate in economics, a professor at Columbia University and chief economist at the Roosevelt Institute, who, in asking what kind of economic system is most conducive to human wellbeing, has for some years argued that “The neoliberal experiment – lower taxes on the rich, deregulation of labour and product markets, financialisaton, and globalisation – has been a spectacular failure”.
The key word is “wellbeing”.
In 1972, Bhutan became the first country to change its method of assessing the country’s national economic health and performance to a more holistic method of assessing progress based not only on its economic performance but also on Gross National Happiness (GNH). The then King Jigme Singye Wangchuck argued that for sustainable development both should be measured.
Bhutan’s GNH includes psychological wellbeing, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards.
In May this year, New Zealand released its first-ever “wellbeing budget”. According to the country’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, the purpose of government spending is to ensure citizens’ health and life satisfaction, and this should be how a country’s progress is measured, not by GDP alone.
Is UK about to follow suit in changing how it measures national economic health?
Just last week it was revealed that in the last three years the numbers of people employed in the “gig” economy had doubled to 4.7 million people, meaning that one in 10 people now works in insecure employment with all the worries this brings about having sufficient – and regular – income to pay the rent, the mortgage, living expenses and so on. The lack of security and lack of welfare support is a real problem for those without savings who live pay cheque to pay cheque.
It has been no secret for some time that income inequality has been rising massively, manufacturing in some parts of the country has been decimated (as covered in my recent macroeconomic update). Arguably this has led to the rise in nationalist and populist movements as demonstrated by the massive national division that was the result of the 2016 referendum to leave the EU.
This is without taking into account the impact of current thinking on the urgency of tackling climate change and environmental damage and moving towards a more sustainable economy.
Clearly, therefore, current circumstances are concentrating some politicians’ and economists’ minds.
In early June, MPs on the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) also backed a proposal to widen measures of UK’s growth performance beyond GDP. Measures of national economic health should take into account other indicators of economic progress, such as consumption, inequality, leisure time, unemployment and life expectancy, it is argued.
The backing followed publication of the first part of a study by the Centre for Progressive Policy (CPP), commissioned by the APPG.
Is all this the start of an unstoppable movement that will have us all rethinking how we asses national economic health? Only time will tell, but why don’t you join the debate and post your own thoughts about what indicators should be included in the assessment?