Growth of the GDP

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU-FM, March 1, 1996

Gross Production vs. Genuine Progress
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Courtesy Redefining Progress, San Francisco, CA

Our leaders are like teenage boys taking the economy out for a spin in dad's car. Politicians want to go as fast as they can, without getting caught or crashing. They want our economy to grow as much as possible, to make the Gross Domestic Product, or GDP (the total output of goods and services in this country) get bigger and bigger and bigger. The governors at the Federal Reserve Bank are worried about getting caught by inflation or crashing into a recession. Their motto is: "Don't grow too fast, but grow steadily." Continuous growth in the dollar value of the GDP is the goal.

By focusing our attention on a few percentage points or even tenths of a percent difference in the GDP's annual growth, our leaders distract us from the more important question of what the GDP really measures. Once we understand what it measures and what it doesn't, we'll know why the continuous growth of the GDP is truly like a cancer and as such isn't necessarily in our best interest.

Economists like to keep track of things which are easy to count such as expensive weapons systems or big new shopping centers. The numbers add up very quickly. It doesn't matter whether they're being built, modified expensively or being taken apart. The numbers always go up.

On the other hand, the food from our gardens and the fruits of our volunteer work don't have a number value, so they are impossible to count. Economists don't even consider them.

New prisons and casinos, long hospital stays, natural disasters and rapidly-obsolescent cars and appliances are all easy to count. They make the GDP go up.

Home cooked meals, quality time spent with our children, clothes drying on a line in the sunshine and health maintained with a good diet and plenty of exercise are hard to put a dollar value on, so they aren't included in the GDP.

Clear-cut forestry, superfund toxic-dump sites, nuclear power and its wastes, as well as heart disease and cancer push the GDP up. The more expensive the problem, the higher the GDP.

In contrast, preserved wilderness, modest lifestyles, happiness and peace, aren't counted. They barely affect the GDP.

Insofar as we've got some of the most powerful people in the world telling us, in effect, that we want to increase the things we can measure and not bother with the things we can't, it isn't surprising that we find ourselves with an over abundance of expensive problems and a shortage of peace and happiness.

Using the GDP to guide us, it's easy to justify fighting a costly war half way around the world to get oil to heat our homes instead of using south-facing windows to get that energy for free. It's no wonder that we need irrigation projects, pesticides, fertilizers, expensive machinery, packing sheds, migrant laborers, trucks, transcontinental highways, parking lots, supermarkets, lights, cooler cases, wrappers and trash incinerators just to get lettuce that is easily grown in our yards or even in a window box.

Redefining Progress, a San Francisco organization, has proposed a solution. Its "Genuine Progress Indicator" attempts to correct the GDP. It subtracts the value of depleted natural resources and the costs of pollution, crime and family breakdown, and adds the value of housework and volunteer work, for example. Since 1950, the "Genuine Progress Indicator" has lost a third of its value, while the GDP has more than doubled.

We find great satisfaction in reducing our consumption and increasing our production. Less television and greasy fast food, fewer aluminum cans and extravagant vacations, and more gardens, solar energy, volunteer work and family harmony.

Last Saturday I went to the recycling center in town. I was delighted to see so many people there, even though one of the workers said it was a slow day. Less than twenty years ago, all the waste in our town went to a landfill in a wetland. So, we are capable of making important changes in our behavior.

But as long as we're guided by a system which values the sales of cigarettes, alcohol, weapons and elaborate entertainments over family, love, peace and happiness, you know what we'll get.

Ask a politician what he or she wants to grow.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth


This page and its contents are copyright © 1996-1997 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.