September 23, 2009
By PETER S. GOODMAN
Among the possible casualties of the Great Recession are the gauges that economists have traditionally relied upon to assess societal well-being. So many jobs have disappeared so quickly and so much life savings has been surrendered that some argue the economic indicators themselves have been exposed as inadequate.
In a provocative new study, a pair of Nobel prize-winning economists, Joseph E. Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, urge the adoption of new assessment tools that incorporate a broader concern for human welfare than just economic growth. By their reckoning, much of the contemporary economic disaster owes to the misbegotten assumption that policy makers simply had to focus on nurturing growth, trusting that this would maximize prosperity for all.
“What you measure affects what you do,” Mr. Stiglitz said Tuesday as he discussed the study before a gathering of journalists in New York. “If you don’t measure the right thing, you don’t do the right thing.”
According to the report, much of the world has long been ruled by an unhealthy fixation on swelling the gross domestic product, or the quantity of goods and services the economy produces. With a singular obsession on making G.D.P. bigger, many societies — not least, the United States — failed to factor in the social costs of joblessness and the public health impacts of environmental degradation. They allowed banks to borrow and bet unfathomable amounts of money, juicing the present by mortgaging the future, thus laying the ground for the worst financial crisis since the 1930s.
The report is more critique than prescription. It elucidates in general terms why leaning exclusively on growth as an economic philosophy may yield unhappiness, and it suggests that the incomes of typical people should be weighed more heavily than the gross production of whole societies. But it sidesteps the thorny details of slapping a cost on a ton of pollution or a waylaid career, leaving a great mass of policy choices for others to resolve.
Some Americans may reflexively reject the report and its recommendations, given its provenance: it was ordered up last year by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, whose dissatisfaction with the available tools of economic assessment prompted him to create the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress. Tuesday’s briefing was held in an ornate room at the French consulate. The official French statistics agency is already working to adopt the report’s recommendations. Mr. Sarkozy plans to bring it with him to the G-20 summit meeting in Pittsburgh this week, where the leaders of major countries will discuss a range of policy issues.
But whatever one’s views on the merits of European economy policy, and wherever one sits on the ideological spectrum, these appear fitting days to re-examine how economists measure vital signs — particularly in the United States.
By most assessments, the American economy is now growing again, perhaps even vigorously. Many experts expect a 3 percent annualized rate of expansion from July through September. As a technical matter, the recession appears to be over. Yet the unemployment rate sits at 9.7 percent and will probably climb higher and remain elevated for many months. In millions of households still grappling with joblessness and the tyranny of bills, signs of health served up by the traditional economic indicators seem disconnected from daily life.
This was precisely the sort of contradiction Mr. Sarkozy sought to unravel when he created the commission, tasking it with pursuing alternate ways of measuring economic health.
To head the panel, he picked Mr. Stiglitz, a former World Bank chief economist whose best-selling books amount to an indictment of the Washington-led model of global economic integration. Mr. Sarkozy also selected Mr. Sen, a Harvard economist and an authority on poverty.
The resulting report amounts to a treatise on the inadequacy of G.D.P. growth as an indication of overall economic health. It cites the example of increased driving, which weighs in as a positive within the framework of economic growth, as it requires greater production of gasoline and cars, yet fails to account for the hours of leisure and work time squandered in traffic jams, and the environmental costs of pollutants unleashed on the atmosphere.
During the real estate bubble that preceded the financial crisis, the focus on economic growth helped encourage overbuilding and investment in real estate. Mr. Stiglitz argues that the single-minded focus on growth gave American policy makers a false sense of assurance that their policies were virtuous, as they allowed financial institutions to direct virtually unlimited sums of money into real estate and as consumer debt levels built with unrestrained momentum.
Credit enabled spending, and spending translated into faster growth — an outcome that was intrinsically good, and never mind how long it might last or the convulsions that would accompany the end of easy money.
A growth-oriented policy encouraged homeowners to borrow as if money need never be repaid, and industry to produce products as if the real cost of pollution were zero, Mr. Stiglitz added.
“We looked to G.D.P. as a measure of how well we were doing, and that doesn’t tell us whether it’s sustainable,” he said at the briefing. “Your measure of output is grossly distorted by the failure of our accounting system. What began as a measure of market performance has increasingly become a measure of social performance, and that’s wrong.”
Instead of centering assessments on the goods and services an economy produces, policy makers would do better to focus on the material well-being of typical people by measuring income and consumption, along with the availability of health care and education, the report concludes.
Many of these prescriptions will no doubt resonate with policy makers and ordinary people.
Indeed, the difficulty comes in turning these general principles into new means of measurement. The report notes that its authors concur on the big picture, but diverge on the methodologies to be employed when it comes to factoring in the value of a better education and cleaner skies.
The old mode of measurement has taken a beating, and yet the new one, it seems, is still a work in progress.