IF there’s a silver lining to our current economic downturn, it’s this: With it comes what the economist Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction,” the failure of outmoded economic structures and their replacement by new, more suitable structures. Downturns have often given a last, fatality-inducing nudge to dying industries and technologies. Very few buggy manufacturers made it through the Great Depression.
Creative destruction can apply to economic concepts as well. And this downturn offers an excellent opportunity to get rid of one that has long outlived its usefulness: gross domestic product. G.D.P. is one measure of national income, of how much wealth Americans make, and it’s a deeply foolish indicator of how the economy is doing. It ought to join buggy whips and VCRs on the dust-heap of history.
The first official attempt to determine our national income was made in 1934; the goal was to measure all economic production involving Americans whether they were at home or abroad. In 1991, the Bureau of Economic Analysis switched from gross national product to gross domestic product to reflect a changed economic reality — as trade increased, and as foreign companies built factories here, it became apparent that we ought to measure what gets made in the United States, no matter who makes it or where it goes after it’s made.
Since then it has become probably our most commonly cited economic indicator, the basic number that we take as a measure of how well we’re doing economically from year to year and quarter to quarter. But it is a miserable failure at representing our economic reality.
To begin with, gross domestic product excludes a great deal of production that has economic value. Neither volunteer work nor unpaid domestic services (housework, child rearing, do-it-yourself home improvement) make it into the accounts, and our standard of living, our general level of economic well-being, benefits mightily from both. Nor does it include the huge economic benefit that we get directly, outside of any market, from nature. A mundane example: If you let the sun dry your clothes, the service is free and doesn’t show up in our domestic product; if you throw your laundry in the dryer, you burn fossil fuel, increase your carbon footprint, make the economy more unsustainable — and give G.D.P. a bit of a bump.
In general, the replacement of natural-capital services (like sun-drying clothes, or the propagation of fish, or flood control and water purification) with built-capital services (like those from a clothes dryer, or an industrial fish farm, or from levees, dams and treatment plants) is a bad trade — built capital is costly, doesn’t maintain itself, and in many cases provides an inferior, less-certain service. But in gross domestic product, every instance of replacement of a natural-capital service with a built-capital service shows up as a good thing, an increase in national economic activity. Is it any wonder that we now face a global crisis in the form of a pressing scarcity of natural-capital services of all kinds?
This points to the larger, deeper flaw in using a measurement of national income as an indicator of economic well-being. In summing all economic activity in the economy, gross domestic product makes no distinction between items that are costs and items that are benefits. If you get into a fender-bender and have your car fixed, G.D.P. goes up.
A similarly counterintuitive result comes from other kinds of defensive and remedial spending, like health care, pollution abatement, flood control and costs associated with population growth and increasing urbanization — including crime prevention, highway construction, water treatment and school expansion. Expenditures on all of these increase gross domestic product, although mostly what we aim to buy isn’t an improved standard of living but the restoration or protection of the quality of life we already had.