GDP is becoming an ever worse measure of how we’re doing

That GDP isn’t a very good measure of how we’re doing has been known since the concept was first pushed by Simon Kuznets coming on a century ago. It only includes monetised transactions, includes government at what it costs rather than the value it adds, doesn’t discuss the distribution of income or consumption, only the gross amount and so on and on. It has its merits, in that it is also reasonably easy to calculate, something that isn’t true of all of the potentially better alternatives.

The really important thing to understand though is that it is not actually a measure of how well we’re doing. It’s a proxy for how well we’re doing. And unfortunately it is becoming an ever less accurate proxy, as this new paper details:

It is also the case that zero-priced digital goods are – by definition – not counted in GDP. Some of these are advertising funded, rather than subscription funded, so the business model choice affects measured GDP – although the invariance could be restored by taking account of the imputed cost to consumers of the unwanted adverts (Nakamura and Soloveichik 2015). Zero prices and the prices of digital bundles are not accounted for in the consumer price deflators either, leading to an understatement of real growth.

Some zero-priced goods – not only products such as software, blogs, and videos, but also ‘sharing economy’ services such as house swaps or shared meals – could be considered voluntary activities, analogous to reading to children in the local school or volunteering in a charity shop. These volunteer activities are outside the conventional production boundary, just like household services.

The importance here (and the paper discusses many other reasons why GDP is getting less good as a measure) is that we’re not in fact interested in production at market prices, nor cconsumption at them, at all. What we’re truly interested in is how much people can consume. With physical goods we have a rough rule of thumb: the consumer surplus (that is, the value the consumer gets but which they don’t have to pay for) is 100% of GDP. So, if GDP is £1.5 trillion, roughly right for the UK, we’re really saying that we think that the value of all consumption, to those doing the actual consumption, is some £3 trillion. But those digital goods skew this horribly.

We measure, for example, Google’s addition to GDP as being the advertising they sell here. Which, given that they sell it all from Ireland means no addition to UK GDP at all (well, OK, the wages of their support engineers do count but). But absolutely no one at all thinks that the consumption value to all of us of Google’s existence is zero. Thus GDP is getting ever further out of whack with what we really want to measure, which is total consumption.

It’s also true that there’s no very easy answer to this either. But we should be aware of it. And for two very good reasons. Firstly, economic growth is not as slow as the standard GDP figures show us. And secondly, inequality is rather less than most think. You and I have just as much access to, and at the same price, the services of Facebook, Google and so on as Gerry Grosvenor, something that does indeed reduce the gap between the richest man in the Kingdom and us working stiffs.

We wish we had said this about inheritance tax

And in fact we have said things like this before:

Do you plan to leave your wealth to your children?
Yes, on the understanding that they, in turn, protect it for their children and grandchildren, as I’m strongly against inheritance tax. Even at the height of my youthful Marxist fervour in the great socialist Jerusalem of the North West, I understood that the only real way to increase social mobility is to allow the working classes to keep the wealth they create and pass it on with their values, so that their children have the wherewithal – the money – to bring about change. Otherwise, you’re just giving it to out-of-touch politicians to waste and constantly pushing people off the mobility ladder.

Rather than the political classes taking a slice of the wealth each generation has created, then wasting it as is so often the case, why not a society in which wealth does cascade down the generations? We don’t actually need to worry about the plutocratic fortunes: contra Piketty, absent those who pass on urban land through primogeniture those do get dispersed down the generations. What some thing of as great inherited fortunes (say, the current generation of Rothschilds) are in fact fortunes that have been generated again in that current generation.

So, why not a society in which that accumulated wealth of each generation is passed on to the children and grandchildren? A bourgeois society in which each is a sturdy independent yeoman, or one in the making?

We would hesitate to state that this is the entire and compete solution to anything at all, but what’s wrong with it as a vision of future society? It doesn’t look that unpleasant, does it, a world in which all have the resources to not be dependent upon the State?

Isn’t it just wonderful how politics works?

If you promise someone lots of other peoples’ money then you can buy their vote:

“I’m 100 percent Bernie,” freshman and first-time voter Emily Wilcox told ThinkProgress. “On education, women’s rights, equality, climate, and really everything, he’s great. He’s looking to the future and thinking about our generation.”

Wearing American flags as capes and BERNIE scrawled across their foreheads in black marker, Wilcox and her friend Summer Auvil said the campus has been leaning towards Sanders in large part because of his promise of tuition-free higher education. The students said signs for Clinton or any Republican candidate were rare on their campus.

“Bernie is just the right choice,” Auvil, a sophomore, said. “Kids are sick of being worried about paying their debt when they get out of college. I had to take out a lot of loans, and it’s a burden hanging over your head. Both of us know people who went into the military just because they couldn’t pay their loans.”

As, of course, everyone running for office has known since Demosthenes, if not since Ur of the Chaldees.

There is always some other whose money, resources, can be taken, desires thwarted, in order to achieve the goals of whoever is being addressed. And given that human beings are both selfish and greedy this is a tactic that works. Which is why we’re rather grudging about this democracy thing, supporting it because it is less bad than all of the other possibilities. For there are things that do need to be collectively decided and using the power and violence of the State. But those things are few and far between which is why we are democratic minarchists, not supporters of the tyranny of the majority.

Democracy, government, they are for only those things that can only be achieved in that manner and also must actually be achieved. For everything else there’s markets and personal liberty. Also known as paying your own damn way into a higher income and a professional job.

How we know that the tax justice campaign is entirely rubbish

An interesting little whine in The Independent about corporate taxation. Which contains one gem and one great truth. The gem:

So enough of multinationals treating the British state as if it were a charitable fund to which they can voluntarily contribute. … Their vans drive on taxpayer-funded roads, and they frequently avail themselves of a legal system paid for by you and I.

The roads are more than paid for by vehicle and fuel duties, both things which local and foreign companies pay if they do actually use the UK’s roads. And the commercial courts system is paid for by user fees: it isn’t actually true that you and I pay for it, not unless we avail ourselves of its services. but the great truth is this:

At a time when public trust in business is plummeting, tax justice has been called ‘the Fairtrade of our times’ – a measure by which we tell a good business from the bad. And as with Fairtrade, when co-ops were the first to stock the products, co-operative councillors the first to demand fairtrade procurement, and Labour & Co-operative MPs the first to demand political support, it’s the co-operative movement and social enterprises that have once again been ahead of the curve.

We have nothing against cooperatives whatsoever, but we do against Fairtrade. For as we’ve found out it doesn’t in fact benefit those poor producers very much if at all. It’s simply a form of outdoor relief for the dimmer members of the upper middle classes, to whom all the actual money flows. And do note that it’s nor us making the comparison between Fairtrade and tax justice but someone who supports both. And thus we know that tax justice isn’t something either serious nor likely to be of benefit to us all: just as Fairtrade isn’t and most certainly isn’t to the poor.

We have to announce that all modern physics is rubbish

Well, obviously it’s rubbish, eh? Because as Walter Heisenberg pointed out we can’t even pin point the location of a particle using physics. So, what’s the use of it, eh? We can know where an electron is going, possibly even how fast, but not where it is. So, thus, obviously, we need to take an entirely different approach to the whole subject of trying to understand the physical world around us.

At least, this would be so if we were to take Tim Garton Ash on economics seriously:

The Guardian recently asked nine economists whether we’re heading for another global financial crash and they gave many different answers. Yet still we turn to economists as if they were physicists, armed with scientific predictions about the behaviour of the body economic. We consumers of economics, and economists themselves, need to be more realistic about what economics can do. More modesty on both the supply and the demand side of economics will produce better results.

Which is to entirely miss the point over what economics can tell us about the timing of crashes. The physics tells us that we cannot know both velocity and location of that electron. This is a finding from the science: it’s not one of those things open to negotiation nor something that we’re going to solve by using a different evidential or logical approach.

And so it is with the timing of a crash in financial or other markets. We do not in fact say “Oh, economics cannot predict that”. We say that “It is impossible to predict that, we have proven it”. Thus the hunt for a predictive method for a crash is a odd as a hunt for the true location and also velocity of a particle. It’s not that we cannot do it with the current state of the science: it’s that the science has proven that we cannot do it.

Thus, if economics fails on this point then so does all of modern physics fail on the same point. And the silly thing about saying that is that nuclear bombs still go boom even if we cannot tell which particle caused it in what manner, and economics is still, even the current economics we use is still, hugely useful in describing the larger world we live in, even if not accurate to the level of detail that physics is not.

Yes, let us be realistic about what economics can do. One of the things we know it cannot do is predict a crash.