My review of Diane Coyle and Zachary Karabell

That is published in The Washington Post, and I can recommend both books.  Coyle’s book is GDP: A Brief But Affectionate History and Karabell’s is The Leading Indicators: A Short History of the Numbers That Rule Our World.  My opening sentences are this:

‘May my children grow up in a world where no one knows who the central banker is” is a wise saying. One also can hope for a world where arguments about measuring GDP (gross domestic product, the sum total of the goods and services produced within a nation) or the inflation rate are rare. In good economic times, we tend to take reported economic numbers for granted, but more recently, conspiracy theories have run wild.

On Coyle:

If you are going to read only one book on GDP, Diane Coyle’s “GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History” should be it. More important, you should read a book on GDP, as many of the political debates of our time revolve around this concept. Can we afford our current path of entitlement spending? Was the Obama fiscal stimulus worth it? When will China overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy?

The answers all depend on GDP. In 140 pages of snappy text, Coyle lays out what GDP numbers measure, what roles they play in economic policymaking and forecasting, and how GDP numbers can sometimes mislead us, albeit not in the way many current critics suggest.

With Karabell I have a quibble:

I do not agree with Karabell’s claim that “Bhutan is now routinely described as one of the happiest nations in the world.” The prime minister of Bhutan, Tshering Tobgay, has moved away from talk of “Gross National Happiness,” perhaps because he has realized that his country has relatively little of it. Most of the population is engaged in subsistence farming and has only a minimal chance of performing rewarding or creative labor. The prime minister instead wishes to focus on concrete goals such as “a motorized rototiller for every village and a utility vehicle for each district.” For all the talk of being content with less, external debt has soared to 90 percent of GDP. If anything, Bhutan may show that measures of GDP get at happiness more clearly than does focusing on happiness more directly. Just look at where immigrants wish to move — it is almost always wealthier countries.

Read the whole thing.


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