Since its introduction during World War II as a measure of wartime production capacity, the Gross National Product (now routinely measured as Gross Domestic Product -- GDP) has become the nation's foremost indicator of economic progress. It is now widely used by policymakers, economists, international agencies and the media as the primary scorecard of a nation's economic health and well-being.
Yet the GDP was never intended for this role. It is merely a gross tally of products and services bought and sold, with no distinctions between transactions that add to well-being, and those that diminish it. Instead of separating costs from benefits, and productive activities from destructive ones, the GDP assumes that every monetary transaction adds to well-being, by definition. It is as if a business tried to assess its financial condition by simply adding up all "business activity," thereby lumping together income and expenses, assets and liabilities.
On top of this, the GDP ignores everything that happens outside the realm of monetized exchange, regardless of its importance to well-being. The crucial economic functions performed in the household and volunteer sectors go entirely ignored. The contributions of the natural habitat in providing the resources that sustain us go unreckoned as well. As a result, the GDP not only masks the breakdown of the social structure and natural habitat; worse, it actually portrays such breakdown as economic gain.
Since the GDP records every monetary transaction as positive, the costs of social decay and natural disasters are tallied as economic advance. Crime adds billions of dollars to the GDP due to the need for locks and other security measures, increased police protection, property damage, and medical costs. Divorce adds billions of dollars more through lawyer's fees, the need to establish second households and so forth. Hurricane Andrew was a disaster for Southern Florida. But the GDP recorded it as a boon to the economy of well over $15 billion.
The crucial functions of childcare, elder care, other home-based tasks, and volunteer work in the community go completely unreckoned in the GDP because no money changes hands. As the non-market economy declines, and its functions shift to the monetized service sector, the GDP portrays this process as economic advance. The GDP also adds the cost of prisons, social work, drug abuse and psychological counseling that arise from the neglect of the non-market realm.
The GDP violates basic accounting principles and common sense by treating the depletion of natural capital as income, rather than as the depreciation of an asset. The Bush Administration made this point in the 1992 report of the Council on Environmental Quality. "Accounting systems used to estimate GDP" the report said, "do not reflect depletion or degradation of the natural resources used to produce goods and services." As a result, the more the nation depletes its natural resources, the more the GDP goes up.
Superfund clean-up of toxic sites is slated to cost hundreds of billions of dollars over the next thirty years, which gets added to the GDP. Since the GDP first added the economic activity that generated that waste, it creates the illusion that pollution is a double benefit for the economy. This is how the Exxon Valdez oil spill led to an increase in the GDP.
By ignoring the distribution of income, the GDP hides the fact that a rising tide does not lift all boats. From 1973 to 1993, while GDP rose by over 50 percent, wages suffered a decline of almost 14 percent. Meanwhile, during the 1980s alone, the top 5 percent of households increased their real income by almost 20 percent. Yet the GDP presents this enormous gain at the top as a bounty to all.
In recent years, consumers and government alike have increased their spending by borrowing from abroad. This raises the GDP temporarily, but the need to repay this debt becomes a growing burden on our national economy. To the extent that Americans borrow for consumption rather than for capital investment, they are living beyond their means and incurring a debt that eventually must be repaid. This downside of borrowing from abroad is completely ignored in the GDP.
The above text is excerpted from The Genuine Progress Indicator: Summary of Data and Methodology, Redefining Progress, 1995. Copies of the full reports are available for $10.00 by contacting:
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