Saying goodbye to GDP

BOSTON GLOBE

By Kevin Hartnett

Last March the Ideas section ran a story about the limitations of gross domestic product as measure of economic health. As economist Diane Coyle explained, GDP was developed as an accounting measure during the Great Depression, isn’t good at tallying up many things we really care about, and was never meant to serve as the be-all-end-all number it is today.

Now there’s a new book that takes the anti-GDP case even further. It’s called “The Little Big Number: How GDP Came to Rule the World,” by Dirk Philipsen, an economic historian at Duke University. Philipsen argues that not only is GDP a flawed statistic in need of replacing — but the whole notion of open-ended economic growth needs to go, too.

“I have not found a single model that would allow economic growth to continue without driving the train off the cliff,” Philipsen says.

Economic growth is virtually synonymous with progress, and the idea that the two might not always go together is hard to shake. The line connecting us to our agrarian forebears is filled with big leaps in material comfort: electric lights, indoor plumbing, canned peas, two cars, pacemakers, lighter computers, a better whisk. But maybe eventually enough is enough.

In an essay published earlier this year, Philipsen wrote that many of the major early economic thinkers — Adam Smith, Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill — viewed economic growth as a vital, but only temporary stage of development, after which a population would be free to enjoy the spoils of its labor.

“The question really is, why would anyone want [economic growth] to go on forever?” Philipsen says. “Who would say no to less work, less stress, less insecurity?”

The consequences of a zero-growth world would be vast and hard to fully anticipate. But a couple come to mind. First, as Philipsen imagines it, there would need to be major amounts of redistribution to provide a basic universal living standard. He estimates that since the 1950s there’s been enough global wealth to “provide food, shelter, education, health care, and a decent living environment for every man, woman, and child on earth.”

Second, people would need to have fewer children, to keep the ratio of people to wealth from getting out of whack. This might seem like a difficult mandate to carry out, but there’s actually good reason to believe that in a post-growth, leisure-filled world, we wouldn’t be interested in larding the equation with too many kids anyway.

“We pretty much know how to solve overpopulation,” Philipsen says. “In countries with a reasonable standard of living, where women who are closer in status to men, it [doesn’t happen].”

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.