Towards a measure of welfare-relevant national output

Robert Barro says GDP overstates national income because it counts investment twice. 

Here is Scott Sumner explaining Barro’s point with an example:

Thus suppose Tesla builds a battery factory that costs $1 billion, which lasts for 20 years.  They hire workers and pay another $2 billion in wages over 20 years.  The batteries sell for a total of $3.3 billion, a profit margin of 10%.   In this example, $4.3 billion is added to GDP over the life of the factory—$1 investment and another $3.3 billion in consumer goods (batteries).   But there is actually only $3.3 billion worth of actual “goods” being produced; the $1 billion factory investment is an input.

As Scott Sumner points out, GDP isn’t meant to be a measure of national welfare, but of national output. This should always be kept in mind and should be pointed out whenever someone is using GDP per capita as a measure of welfare. But it’s clear that GDP, understood as national output, is really useful for many policy discussions.

That said, I was thinking about how to correct GDP to better measure that part of national output which is directly relevant to people’s wellbeing. And here’s what I would do: I would count all spending on consumption goods (private and public) as well as residential construction spending which is presently counted as „investment“. Following Barro’s critique I would not count spending on capital goods such as factories, machines, tools, and intellectual property which are only indirectly useful to consumers in so far as they help produce consumer goods in the future.

As for government consumption, I would suggest to apply a “waste correction” to take into account the fact that some of that consumption just isn’t useful to consumers. Spending billions of euros on a tunnel or an airport or a bridge which nobody has used yet or on a weapons system which (hopefully) will never be used, is to a large degree wasted money, although views will differ exactly how much of it is really wasted. At any rate, I think GDP should try to account for government waste.

So to sum up, I’d propose the following measure:

Welfare-relevant GDP
= Private consumption
+ Government consumption x (1 – waste ratio)
+ Investment in residential construction

Here’s what this would look like for Austria in 2018:

million euros, 2018
Private consumption199.459
Government consumption 74.295
      of which waste 14.859
Residential investment 17.232
Welfare-relevant GDP276.126
Conventional GDP386.063
Ratio: welfare-relevant 
/ conventionalGDP
71,5 %

In other words, conventional GDP overstates the supply of goods that are directly relevant for the welfare of households by almost 30%. I would like the welfare-relevant GDP measure to be used when comparing living-standard across countries or within countries across time. And I would like growth theory to focus on the growth of this measure.

(PS: What about exports and imports? Exports aren’t welfare-relevant for the home country, because those are goods consumed by foreigners. Imports are, of course, already included in measures of private and public spending measures. So there’s no need to add exports and subtract imports as done in conventional GDP.)

Österreichs Wirtschaftsgeschichte in einer Grafik

Wenn es eine Grafik gibt, die die wirtschaftliche Geschichte Österreichs kompakt zusammenfassen kann, dann diese. Sie zeigt das reale Bruttoinlandsprodukt pro Einwohner für Österreich zwischen dem Jahr 1870 und heute, logarithmisch transformiert, sodass die Steigung der Kurve als prozentuelle Wachstumsrate gelesen werden kann. Die Daten stammen aus der großartigen Madison-Datenbank. Das BIP-pro-Kopf ist kein ideales Maß für gesellschaftlichen Wohlstand und die Madison-Daten sind nicht perfekt. Dennoch gibt diese Grafik einen eindrucksvollen Einblick in unsere Geschichte.


Diese Grafik legen folgende Einteilung nahe:

1870-1914: Die Zeit der Doppelmonarchie, in der das BIP pro Kopf ziemlich kontinuierlich mit etwa 1,5% pro Jahr wuchs und sich so innerhalb einer Generation verdoppelte.

1914-1945: Die Zeit der Weltkriege, gekennzeichnet von den drei große Krisen, nämlich der Hyperinflation, der Großen Depression und der Katastrophe des Zweiten Weltkriegs. Am Ende dieser Periode war Österreich wirtschaftlich gesehen da, wo es 1870 gestanden hatte.

1945-1975: Die Wirtschaftswunderjahre, in denen das Pro-Kopf-Einkommen um sagenhafte 6% jährlich anstieg und sich innerhalb einer Generation mehr als verfünffachte.

1975-heute: Die Zeit der “neuen Normalität’’, in der Österreichs Pro-Kopf-Einkommen weiterhin wuchs, aber mit deutlich langsameren Tempo, etwa um 2% pro Jahr.

Insgesamt hat sich während dieser ganzen Periode Österreichs BIP pro Kopf von 1.800 Dollar auf 24.000 US-Dollar (in internationalen Geary-Khamis-Dollar von 1990) gesteigert, also circa verdreizehnfacht. Das heißt, was ein durchschnittlicher Österreicher im Jahr 1870 jährlich verdient hat, verdient er heute in weniger als einem Monat! Mit dem Durchschnittseinkommen des Jahres 1870 (ungefähr 2,800 heutige Euros) würde man heute weit unter der Armutsgrenze (13.000 Euro pro Jahr) leben. Umgekehrt wäre man mit dem Durchschnittseinkommen von heute höchstwahrscheinlich unter den 1% der reichsten Österreicher im Jahr 1870.

Ich finde es lohnt sich diese Fakten im Blick zu behalten.

Castro’s Economic Legacy

The former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro has died. During his long rule from 1959 to 2006, he turned Cuba into a communist country with Soviet-style central planning, a strict one-party rule, rigorous oppression of political opponents and cruel persecution of “social deviants” (prostitutes, homosexuals, etc.). Most comments I have read about his death focus on his extravagant personality and his crimes against human rights, but completely neglect to mention his economic legacy.

And that was quite disastrous. Look at this:


In 1959, Cuba’s GDP per capita was about 2000 US dollars (in 1990 purchasing power parities), while the average of Latin American countries was about 3000 dollars. Today, the Latin American average has roughly doubled to 6000 dollars. Cuba’s is still 2000 dollars. The paper from which this graph is taken estimates that Castro’s communist experiment has reduced Cuba’s real GDP per capita by 40 percent in 1974 compared to what would have happened without the 1959 revolution.

If cold numbers are not your cup of tea, see George Borjas’ memories of growing up in Castro’s regime.

Measuring Development II – Living Standards and GDP per capita

In the first blog entry I wrote about the meaning of the word “development” and it led us to an interesting discussion of whether our definitions of development are normative or positive. In the second part of the “Measuring Development” series I would like to talk a bit about an indicator of development: living standards.

Living standards are obviously of utmost importance to economics. Sen (1988, p.11), for instance, points out that “the enhancement of living conditions must clearly be an essential – if not the essential object of the entire economic exercise”. Clearly, we can mean different things when we talk about living standards. To start with a rather simple differentiation, I distinguish between material living standards (MLS) and a broader notion of living conditions (LC), which includes aspects of life that go beyond the material component (i.e. education, health, job satisfaction,… ). The following paragraphs discuss whether GDP per capita successfully measures MLS.

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