GDP is dead. Long live the alternatives

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I liked this letter from Caroline Lucas in the Guardian this morning, commenting on an article by Larry Elliott:

Larry Elliott (Opinion, 30 November) is absolutely right to question a fixation on growth at all costs. We know that infinite economic growth simply isn’t compatible with a planet of finite resources, and we also know that the treatment of environmental concerns as “externalities” in pursuit of never-ending GDP increases is incredibly damaging. So if we know that growth is environmentally damaging, and not a guarantee of increased wellbeing, how do we shift our focus towards a new measure of a good society?

We need a new set of indicators that better reflect genuine wellbeing. For a start I would suggest we should aim to share out paid work more widely and evenly, and increase the amount of positive leisure time people have, giving them more choice about time with their communities, friends and family. The Green party’s calls for a shorter working week are often attacked as being anti-growth, but that misses the point of policymaking that should surely be to serve people rather than worship at the altar of GDP.

It feels like Britain is ready for a real conversation about what makes for a good life, and I for one am looking forward to the time when growth figures are considered an old-fashioned way of monitoring progress.
Caroline Lucas MP
Green, Brighton Pavilion

I guess I should declare an interest: both Caroline and Larry are fellow members of the Green New Deal group. Of course we challenge GDP as a measure. It's arbitrary, ignores value, encourages excess and fails to take account of distribution amongst its many faults. But there are alternatives. Charles Adams of Durham University who usually blogs at Progressive Pulse but on this occasion was on Brave New Europe made a good case for one alternative measure, which is increasing median disposable income of households:

We know that money buys freedom but we cannot simply maximise freedom by giving people more money. The only result would be inflation. Better is to maximise disposable income for everyone—net income minus essential spend on basic subsistence, housing and energy (rents that act as a drag on productive activity).

Increasing disposable income for the whole of society opens up choices—including ones that GDP cannot measure, for example to do more in the community or spend more time with the kids. Disposable income changes the focus towards productive economic activity rather than wealth extraction. Investment in housing, sustainable energy, and transport infrastructure provide the foundation for a freer society where we are enabled to pursue a productive life.

A second key ingredient in choosing the right metric is to use median measures rather than a crude average (or mean). To see the difference, imagine a football team where one player is earning one million pounds per week and the other ten earn one hundred. The average salary is close to half a million whereas the median income is only one hundred. If the pay of the star player is increased to two million then average income doubles while median incomes remains almost the same. By optimising median income we optimise the distribution such that everyone can be maximally economically active. The importance of using the median measure is discussed on Jonathan Andreas’ medianism blog.

If political-economy is to be of any use, it should not just try to understand the world but also try to improve it. Progress implies that something should be optimised. The GDP money-metric is a crude goal for life, better to maximise median disposable income, first by addressing the optimal distribution and second by provision of universal basic services (health, education, housing, and transport). By switching away from GDP to median disposable income we get closer to maximising freedom, and that matters.

I agree. The New Economics Foundation also has made valuable contributions in this area.

This is a case where we can simply do better. Let's get on and do it.