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Growth Worship is the Real Problem

Robert Samuelson got it half-right in his syndicated Washington Post column last week:

Let Us Praise GDP

His concern is with the desire of some GDP critics to change the way GDP (gross domestic product) is calculated. Since everlasting growth of GDP is our Holy Grail, I expect every reader knows that GDP is a measure of economic activity, or “throughput.”

Samuelson is right, there is a growing chorus clamoring for changes in how we measure the health of our economy and prosperity in general:

“GDP has become a punching bag for pundits, economists, environmentalists and others who claim that it is incomplete and misleading. The respected Economist magazine recently joined the slugfest. It editorialized: ‘This one number [GDP] has become shorthand for material well-being, even though it is a deeply flawed gauge of prosperity, and getting worse all the time.”

To his credit, Samuelson doesn’t contest this fact. It is SO true that GDP does NOT measure well-being, not even of the “material” variety, nor does it gauge “prosperity,” however you might define it. A 1968 speech by Robert F. Kennedy preserved on YouTube does one of the best jobs of explaining why.

No argument from Samuelson:

“The trouble with this indictment is that GDP was never intended to be — and shouldn’t be — a measure of general prosperity, which depends on many conditions (a few: job stability, income distribution, health). Prosperity can’t be compressed into a single number. The GDP’s mission is more modest, though still difficult: to measure the economy’s production.”

The biggest problem with GDP is one that Samuelson, unfortunately, fails to point out. GDP growth has become our national and global obsession, the number one public policy goal. During the 80+ years we’ve been measuring GDP we’ve gotten carried away. We’ve come to equate GDP growth with prosperity. We have come to “praise” GDP growth. “Worship” may be a more accurate word. We believe perpetual economic growth is an unalloyed good, even though economic throughput inevitably involves consumption of natural resources and emission of wastes – eventually problematic on a finite planet.

So strong is our faith in the universal goodness of growth, most of us, Samuelson included, fail to see that economic growth is already creating huge resource and waste problems (fertile soil depletion, fresh water supply crises, toxification of air and water, species extinction and climate change).

So…fine, don’t redefine GDP, but for God’s sake let’s get over our obsession with its growth. It is killing our life-support systems, it’s killing some of us, and it will certainly kill many, if not most, of our kids. I eagerly await the day Robert Samuelson writes about this!

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Dave Gardner

Producer of the documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth. Dave writes and speaks regularly on the subject of growth addiction, including the pro-growth media bias that perpetuates prosperity-from-growth mythology.

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