The GDP Today: How Down Becomes Up
If the chief of your local police department were to announce today that “activity” on the city streets had increased by 15 percent, people would not be impressed, reporters least of all. They would demand specifics. Exactly what increased? Tree planting or burglaries? Volunteerism or muggings? Car wrecks or neighborly acts of kindness?
The mere quantity of activity, taken alone, says virtually nothing about whether life on the streets is getting better or worse. The economy is the same way. “Less” or “more” means very little unless you know of what. Yet somehow the GDPmanages to induce a kind of collective stupor in which such basic questions rarely get asked.
By itself the GDP tells very little. Simply a measure of total output (the dollar value of finished goods and services), it assumes that everything produced is by definition “goods." It does not distinguish between costs and benefits, between productive and destructive activities, or between sustainable and unsustainable ones. The nation's central measure of well being works like a calculating machine that adds but cannot subtract. It treats everything that happens in the market as a gain for humanity, while ignoring everything that happens outside the realm of monetized exchange, regardless of the importance to well-being.
By the curious standard of the GDP, the nation's economic hero is a terminal cancer patient who is going through a costly divorce. The happiest event is an earthquake or a hurricane. The most desirable habitat is a multibillion-dollar Superfund site. All these add to the GDP, because they cause money to change hands. It is as if a business kept a balance sheet by merely adding up all “transactions,” without distinguishing between income and expenses, or between assets and liabilities.
The perversity of the GDP affects virtually all parts of society. In 1993 William J. Bennett, who had been the Secretary of Education in the Reagan Administration, produced a study of social decline. He called it “The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators,” a deliberate counterpoint to the Commerce Department's similarly named regular economic report. His objective was to detail the social erosion that has continued even as the nation's economic indicators have gone up.
The strange fact that jumps out from Bennett's grim inventory of crime, divorce, mass-media addiction, and the rest is that much of it actually adds to the GDP. Growth can be social decline by another name. Divorce, for example, adds a small fortune in lawyers' bills, the need for second households, transportation and counseling for kids, and so on. Divorce lawyers alone take in probably several billion dollars a year, and possibly a good deal more. Divorce also provides a major boost for the real-estate industry. “Unfortunately, divorce is a big part of our business. It means one [home] to sell and sometimes two to buy,”a realtor in suburban Chicago told the Chicago Tribune. Similarly, crime has given rise to a burgeoning crime-prevention and security industry with revenues of more than $65 billion a year. The car-locking device called The Club adds some $100 million a year to the GDP all by itself, without counting knock-offs. Even a gruesome event like the Oklahoma City bombing becomes an economic uptick by the strange reckonings of the GDP. “Analysts expect the share prices [of firms making anti-crime equipment] to gain during the next several months,” The Wall Street Journal reported a short time after the bombing, “as safety concerns translate into more contracts.”