An Alternative to GDP as a Measure of Welfare

Over the course of the semester, we’ll address the issue of economic growth and economic well-being. We’ll ask–and attempt to answer–question such as “why are most African countries still so poor?”, “why has there been an economic miracle in many parts of east Asia?”, etc. As we’ll see, the most widely used measure of economic welfare (or well-being) is gross domestic product (GDP), which is a measure of the total goods and services produced in a country in a given year.

Evidence suggests that the higher a country’s GDP, the better that country’s residents live; that is, they are better off. Recently, there has been increasing criticism of the focus on GDP as a measure of societal welfare. Think of the recent oil spill of the US coast in the Gulf of Mexico. The money spent to (attempt to) clean the waters and beaches served to increase the GDP in this area during the clean-up. It doesn’t take too much imagination to understand that this increase in GDP was probably not a boost in the general welfare of the individuals living in the region.

Robert Kennedy, at the start of his ill-fated run for the US presidency in 1968, remarked about GDP:

“The GDP* measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile.”

In a recent TED talk, statistician Nic Marks tackles some of the issues of using the GDP as a measure of a society’s “success.” From the abstract:

Statistician Nic Marks asks why we measure a nation’s success by its productivity — instead of by the happiness and well-being of its people. He introduces the Happy Planet Index, which tracks national well-being against resource use (because a happy life doesn’t have to cost the earth). Which countries rank highest in the HPI? You might be surprised.