Let’s Talk about GDP

I titled this post, my paper, and my video “Let’s Talk about GDP” because that statement pretty well summarizes the conclusions of my research.  The goal of my project was to synthesize existing discourse on GDP and alternatives to GDP.  I feel like I have generally accomplished my goal, and through the process realized that there is a lot of discourse on these topics, but there is still much more that needs to be discussed.

Most of the discussion about GDP and other measures takes place within communities of experts, so that the average person is relatively unaware of topics such as the history and implications of GDP.  I don’t know exactly how this should play out, but I think there should be more conversation at all levels of society about GDP and alternatives to GDP.  Many of the alternatives proposed so far emphasize different variables, so there needs to be more discussion about what people truly value the most and what is the best way  to measure those values.  There should also be more emphasis on the global impact that countries have, because this can limit the relevance of measures that only focus on what occurs within countries.  There are many other related questions remaining.

Should alternatives to GDP include GDP? Should they prioritize the environment? Should they prioritize basic needs? Should they prioritize education? Which variables best represent health, education, or environmental constraints?  Should many variables be used or just a few? Should the variables be combined into a single number or remain somewhat separate?  How will these measures be standardized across countries?  Should the same measures be used for the Global South and the Global North?  If new measures are adopted, should they be prescribed to grow or remain stable? Is economic growth necessary?

It is clearly impossible for one person to adequately answer all of these questions.  These issues are also extremely complex, so as much as there needs to be broad discussion about them, experts are certainly needed, especially to deal with more technical components.

I’ve attached my video (which is a pretty short summary) and my paper (which has lots more detailed information).  I would love to hear any comments or ideas, and I look forward to continuing the conversation, however that plays out.

I’m really glad I got to do this research this summer.  Special thanks to the Charles Center and my advisor, Professor Quark, for all of the support!

Let’s Talk About GDP (link to paper)


  1. mmcharles says:

    This project brings up a lot of interesting issues that I never thought about, and the video does a great job summarizing the topic! It definitely seems like there are a lot of more qualitative variables left out of GDP– do you think we use GDP because those aspects of the economy aren’t prioritized, or more just because of the convenience of having a standardized measure to compare across countries? Was there any particular alternative measure(s) that stood out to you as a better way to evaluate the economy?

  2. Thanks Molly! I think part of the reason we use GDP is definitely because certain aspects of the economy aren’t prioritized. They weren’t at the time it was created, so we kind of just ran with it and never looked back. And then because it has become so standardized, it definitely seems really convenient now, so that also is part of the reason we keep using it. It did take a while to standardize though, so it’s not necessarily impossible to create a new standard. That would just mean letting go of what we currently consider convenient. It’s still really hard for me to say which measures I favor but if I had to say, I think the Genuine Progress Index, the Happy Planet Index, and Doughnut Economics (or a combination of those) might have the most potential.

  3. This project is so interesting! I’ve learned about a lot of these different indicators of wealth or well-being in government classes, but I appreciate how you completed sort of a “meta” analysis of how people talk about or see those different indicators. Did you happen to look into income inequality and how that affects the characterization of GDP as a good (or bad) indicator of wealth? Thomas Piketty in his “Capital in the 21st Century” talks a lot about the history of income inequality, especially following the destruction of European infrastructure following WWII. Do you think that your analysis of GDP indicators could be extended into an analysis of how we measure income inequality in a country?


Speak Your Mind