Measuring ourselves

We take measuring ourselves incredibly importantly. This is true at the individual level (we want to know whether we fit in), but also at the national level – how well are we doing relative to, say, the Eurozone countries?

In order to be able to say anything at all about the latter, we have to have some measurements. The standard measurement we use when it comes to entire economies like the UK, or like France or Germany or the USA, is Gross Domestic Product, or GDP. It’s the value at market prices of all the goods and services produced in an economy over some period of time. It’s everything we make as a country, at the value we place upon it – very broadly speaking.

That it’s not a good measure of welfare is almost universally well known. This article from a very interesting blog (well worth a read if you’re feeling like procrastinating but want to feel like you’ve been at least a little bit productive) notes that by and large innovation doesn’t appear in the statistics either. Relative to even our parents, but certainly our grandparents’ eras, ours is one of mass variety, it’s argued, and this is the result of innovation – loads more great products for us to buy and enjoy.

The very basic economics says this should be good – we can find the products that most suit us in all areas of our lives, and be happier than if we were more restricted in the choices we could make. However, choices have opportunity costs, and opportunity costs may lead to regrets – if one makes one choice, one cannot have done the other similarly enticing thing. If innovations are sufficiently small (the difference between, say, the latest Android phone made by Samsung and the latest one may by LG), we as consumers cannot realistically be expected to be well informed about these kinds of differences and what they mean.

Anyhow, the bottom line is that we use GDP, and we use it in all sorts of ways (not least to determine how much the government should spend). It’s a vitally important statistic, and a huge amount of effort goes into producing it (effort that shows up in GDP) – and we should be aware of its shortcomings, without necessarily advocating its replacement. It’s not clear how any other measure of well-being could appropriately factor in the amount of choice we have, and how differently it affects each of us.