GDP really only is a proxy, not actually how well we're doing


There are those who criticise the concentration on GDP as a measure of how well we're doing. And they're right: although not quite for the reason that they think they are. To say that it doesn't matter that we're all getting richer, that we should just be content, is nonsense of the most arrant sort. Any casual glance around the world will show that there are still outrages such as absolute poverty which greater wealth could solve: thus we do indeed want to get richer. However, the argument that GDP isn't a very good measurement of how much richer we're getting is entirely true. As this little story tells us:

While global economic problems have taken much of the blame for tightened tech spending lately, another culprit may be afoot: computing on demand delivered over the Internet.

The idea is that instead of capital spending on equipment people now rent it by the month. This plays merry hell with our GDP statistics. For people do indeed look at something like business investment in computing as a measure of how much, well, how much is being invested and thus likely how rich the future will be. But investment is defined as what gets written off over longer than one year. And renting the cloud kit is current expenditure. That's not investment: and thus those reading the runes on business computing investment are going to be fooled by this. For we've still the same amount of computing, still, at least possibly, the same amount spent upon it too. We've just changed the classification of that spending.

But that's not all:

Take Ted Ross, CIO of the city of Los Angeles. He needed to upgrade the technology that powers the city’s Business Assistance Virtual Network, the site where vendors bid for projects from various city agencies. Mr. Ross considered buying new blade servers to host the site. Instead, he decided to run the site on Microsoft’s Azure technology. He’ll halve his costs, and the migration should take four to six weeks, he said.

Actually spending less while still getting the same amount of computing done? That's something that makes us all richer. And yet one of the things we also know about GDP accounting is that it doesn't deal well with these "hedonic" improvements. Either the improvement in performance at the same price, or the availability of that same performance for a lower price.

We do want the world to be becoming generally richer, yes we do. And that means we do want GDP to rise: it's a measure of the resources we have available to solve problems and while the world still contains problems we'd like our ability to solve them to rise too. However, we must always remember that GDP is a proxy for that increasing wealth and that we shouldn't set it up upon a pedestal as being the only goal.