I’ve been thinking lately about GDP, and common ideas of economic progress more generally.
I just attended an event about the causes of and cures for poverty in the poorest countries. So much of the discussion utilized comparisons between countries based on measures of GDP, GDP growth, and the like. The more I thought about it, the less sense this made. Not that GDP doesn’t decently correlate to overall wealth, opportunity, and progress – it does – but that it does less and less as technology and markets change. GDP charts would fail to show, for example, the tremendous progress made in many poor countries by the fact that nearly everyone now has access to cell phones. In fact, GDP does a bad job at measuring the progress of information/communication/data in general.
Consider MOOC’s and the abundance of free online learning. Since the education industry is a chunk of GDP, putting it all out there for free can actually bring GDP numbers down, even as human well-being and human capital increase.
Think about other areas of misleading measures. What you can do with a computer or smart phone in terms of sending data across the globe means fewer freight ships, the things easily measured in GDP calculations, but not less progress and opportunity.
Automation, information technology, decentralized networks, open-source…these make the world better and increase human flourishing, though they don’t do much for old-school metrics like employment and GDP. Being listed as on the payroll of a company doesn’t always equal being better off (depending upon what else you might be doing of course), and having a larger number of physical objects to count doesn’t either.
For this reason, I don’t take much stock in those who lament slowed economic growth and fear it will bring an end to the complex market systems in countries like the US. We used to consider farming the only thing that really mattered for economic well-being. Then manufacturing. As machines can do more of both of these, we humans can be redeployed in myriad ways previously unimagined. Think about all the micro entrepreneurship going on today. Think of crowdfunding for one-off projects. I know authors who probably aren’t technically “employed” most of the time, if at all, and don’t produce GDP enhancing widgets, but they live wonderful lives by pitching book ideas on kickstarter, raising the money, travelling the world, doing the writing, and selling ebooks. They may make aggregate data appear we’re economically worse off, but they’d rather not trade their life for one hoeing rows or assembling buggies.
The fact that no one quite knows how to calculate the value of the internet and other information age technologies probably causes us all to underestimate just how well-off we are today, and how bright the future is. It’s the perfect time to seize the opportunity and do something new. Carpe diem.