Are we really to believe that GDP literally has no “meaning”? To think so, one would seriously have to argue that GDP
(1) lacks any significance;Unfortunately for those who believe this, the idea that GDP is “meaningless” is utterly ludicrous.
(2) is without use or value, and
(3) contains nothing of substance which can be agreed or disagreed with.
First, what is GDP? GDP equals private consumption + gross investment + government spending + (exports − imports).
GDP is a measure of the value of a country’s overall economic output or national income in terms of output. It can also be defined as “the market value of all final goods and services made within the borders of a country in a year.”
One objection that people have is that GDP is “fake” because it supposedly measures “consumption on imported products as national income.” But these people are actually clueless about what GDP actually is. In fact, by definition, the value of imported goods in the trade deficit is subtracted from GDP whether they were bought in consumption, investment or by government spending, and the resulting measure of GDP leaves us with the value of all domestic goods and services. Thus GDP is national income minus imports in the trade deficit. The value of the remaining imports is paid for by earnings on exports, so one can hardly complain that this is based on debt.
Now to the idea that GDP is “meaningless.” If this were really the case, then an immediate consequence is the components of GDP are also meaningless.
We can start with exports minus imports. Does the total value of UK exports “lack any significance” or have “no use”? The earnings from exports are a fundamental source of income through foreign exchange for a country. The total value of money spent on imports also shows how much a country is consuming from overseas. And are we to say that establishing whether or not a country has a trade deficit or surplus (i.e., exports – imports) “lacks any significance”? Clearly it does not. It is a fundamental measure of trade balance. People who regard current account deficits as a form of “living beyond one’s means” are clearly directly dependent on a major component of GDP to establish whether a country has a trade deficit or not. Such people cannot claim that a country is “living beyond its means” and then claim that the trade balance component of GPD is a meaningless measure because they are dependent on it themselves. Without it, they would have no justification whatsoever for their view, as they would have no knowledge at all of whether the country is in trade balance or not.
Next, let’s look at gross investment. Although gross investment includes spending on housing, it excludes spending on financial assets or financial instruments. Thus by definition it excludes the second major type of economic activity that causes debt-fuelled bubble growth. Although much housing is funded with debt, it at least provides a real asset that is of use to the community that can be resold as a benefit to other people. That overinvestment in housing through debt was a major factor in distorting economies over the last 20 years is undeniable. But, with orderly deleveraging and a proper correction in prices, the houses themselves are real assets that will make the community wealthier, not poorer. There is no sense in which the housing construction component of GDP “lacks any significance.” It might have been funded by excessive private debt, but this is saying something quite different from the former statement about GDP. Moreover, gross investment also includes replacement purchases, net additions to capital assets and investments in inventories. Thus gross investment includes new spending in capital goods, production facilities and factories. These are fundamental parts of the productive sector of the economy allowing it to engage in production. The belief that a measure of this “lacks any meaning” is utterly absurd. It can tell you a great deal about how much investment there is in real productive capacity in an economy (one criticism of gross investment is that it does not take account of the cost of depreciation. But this limitation is well known, and hardly makes the measure “without significance or value”).
Private consumption is the total value of private household final consumption expenditure, including durable goods, non-durable goods, and services. But it also excludes home purchases. It is here that critics complain that GDP is meaningless, because over the past two decades an increasing part of it has been financed by private debt. On the contrary, a measure of the value of private consumption allows us to calculate the extent to which consumption is being increased by private debt. Far from being meaningless or without significance, this is a crucial indicator of the health of the economy. Excessive private debt is a serious problem, but you can only know how serious by calculating GDP and looking at the annual increase in private debt. One can complain that consumption is excessive because of too much private debt, but this does not make the total value of private consumption “meaningless.” It obviously has a great deal of significance.
Lastly, we come to government spending. This is the component of GDP that anti-government advocates of free markets object to. Their objections are usually justified with the a priori belief that government spending is never productive or beneficial. However, if you reject their a priori premise that government is bad, then there is no reason why government spending should not be included in GDP. Government provides fundamental things like basic R&D for science, education, health care, and public infrastructure – all things of use to the community. For example, our public infrastructure and transportation systems are the foundation of economic life.
The second argument against counting government spending in GDP is that sometimes it is based on public debt. This commits the fallacy of equating public debt with private debt. But public debt is wholly different from private sector debt, for these reasons:
(1) the government is the monopoly issuer of its own currency; no private individual can print money;Clearly, the belief that government debt is like household debt is utterly false. It may be a “common sense” and “intuitive” idea for many people, but this is no convincing argument in its favour. For many people over the centuries, the idea that the sun revolves around the earth was a “common sense” and “intuitive” belief. But that “belief” couldn’t be more wrong. The same thing applies to the belief that governments are like private households.
(2) if necessary, the government can monetise its deficit;
(3) the government has the power to rollover much of its debt, unlike private individuals;
(4) the government’s central bank has the power to buy back bonds with new money and to control interest rates and bond yields if necessary, and
(5) the government has access to tax receipts which grow over time and with economic growth.
Consequently, the government spending component of GDP is meaningful.
On the other hand, there are legitimate criticisms of GDP that can be made. For example, that GDP takes no account of inequality of wealth and does not measure unpaid work. In developing countries where monetary exchanges are much less significant (e.g., where barter still has a place), GDP underestimates economic activity. In cases where economic activity involves repairing damage or rebuilding after some destructive event like a natural disaster or war, GDP is boosted in a way that can be misleading. Yet another problem is that GDP neglects negative externalities, or the harmful effects of economic transactions that are not reflected in the price.
All these criticisms of GDP, however, tend to recognise that it does convey useful information, although there may be limits to how much can be learned from the measure. This is a far cry from the absurd claim that GDP has no meaning.
Appendix 1: Other Confusions about GDP
Reviewing some of the comments on the Cynicus Economicus blog, one finds other confusions about GDP. I list these comments below with responses.
as Cynicus has previously stated GDP is no longer a measure of productivity, but it is a measure of consumption, most of which is via debt spending in shops and by companies.GDP does not measure productivity. GDP measures the value of output, or national income in terms of output, as some prefer to say. You measure productivity by productivity indices.
Moreover, GDP includes a measure of gross investment (e.g., fixed capital investment), takes account of earnings from exports, and a good deal of government spending in R&D and education can be considered as investment as well. It is not possible to say that GDP is just “a measure of consumption.” Although consumption is clearly part of it, much of this consumption is also national income, spent on domestically-produced goods and services.
and you fail to acknowledge that consumer debt spending on imported goods is also measured in GDP of national income when clearly it is not.This is false. As I have noted above, GDP is national income in terms of domestic goods and services, and by definition all imported goods in the trade deficit are subtracted from GDP whether they were bought in consumption, investment or by government spending.
Appendix 2: Total US Domestic Spending and Investment Minus Total Imports
As noted above, GDP subtracts the value of the trade deficit. The means to pay for imports not part of the trade deficit come from earnings from exports.
But one can also calculate the value of total US domestic public and private spending and investment minus total imports (= TDSI). To do this we would remove the value of exports from the calculation of GDP as below:
private consumption + gross investment + government spending – imports = TDSI.
Some basic figures (in 2009 US dollars):
US GDP: $14.26 trillion (2009 est.)
US Exports: $1.571 trillion (2009 est.)
US Imports – $1.946 trillion (2009 est.)
US trade deficit = 0. 3749 trillion (2009 est.).
The formula we need to work from is here:
GDP = private consumption + gross investment + government spending + (exports − imports).So in 2009 US private consumption + gross investment + government spending = $14.6349 trillion (which is GDP + the trade deficit).
US imports were $1.946 trillion (2009 est.).
Therefore total US domestic public and private spending and investment minus total imports is as follows:
14.6349 – 1.946 = $12.6889.
Therefore the total value of all US domestic spending and investment minus total imports was $12.6889 trillion.
This means that 88.98% of US GDP was actually private or public spending or investment on US domestic goods and services. That means that the vast majority of GDP was not due to imports at all.
If you seriously believe that GDP is a “worthless” measure because it includes consumption of foreign imports, then it is not difficult to calculate that the actual size of the US economy once imports are subtracted is $12.6889 trillion.