Growing Pains

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Issue 309
July/August 2018
The Food Issue

Reviews

Growing Pains
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Cover: Photograph by Leela Cyd www.leelacyd.com

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Russell Warfield enjoys a critique of how we measure economic wealth. The Growth Delusion by David Pilling. Published by Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018. ISBN: 9781408893708

It is easy to sound like a drip when you’re criticising gross domestic product (GDP). You start by pointing out that it tots up war, bombs and guns, but ignores parenthood, friendship and cuddles. Soon you’re reduced to clichés about knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. For a position so central to the green movement, it’s frustratingly difficult to advocate without playing to stereotype. It’s nice then, to have the argument taken up by a senior Financial Times editor in The Growth Delusion – a surprisingly zippy book that has the potential to take a smart riposte of mindless growth into mainstream debate.

David Pilling isn’t afraid to make the well-worn criticisms of GDP, and does so with clarity and force. But the real beauty of the book is how effortlessly he takes this argument a step further, demonstrating how GDP often makes no sense whatsoever, even taken on its own terms. One of the purported benefits of GDP, for instance, is its ability to provide a standard of comparison between nation-states. But Pilling shows us that this is not the case, and not only because globalised free market capitalism makes the ‘domestic’ part of GDP so hard to calculate.

Take a nation’s split between the public and private sector as an example. It is very difficult to measure government spending in terms of GDP, and so a country that has heavily privatised services will likely enjoy improvements in growth, even if social outcomes are plummeting. This seems to reveal an interesting truth about the blind pursuit of growth: it contains an inbuilt bias towards privatisation. Insights like this are packed throughout the book’s opening half.

As is often the case with books like this, however, The Growth Delusion is far better at outlining problems than offering solutions. The final third of the book investigates various attempts people have made at coming up with a new measurement for true prosperity, from the Happy Planet Index to the genuine progress indicator (GPI). However, Pilling admits that none is robust enough to supplant GDP. Instead, his ideal is to imagine GDP as one useful indicator among many – like an instrument on a pilot’s dashboard – with other measurements taking into account the environment, wellbeing, inequality, and so on.

It’s hard to be optimistic about this, however, when Pilling himself argues that one of the key things that make GDP so enduring is the irresistible allure of a single number. Nor does he make clear from where or from whom we can expect this monumental break from economic orthodoxy. The free market right are going to stick to their guns on growth, serving as a fig leaf for ends as varied as privatisation, austerity and the accumulation of capital. But the traditional left is also beholden to growth, viewing it as an essential precursor to effective redistribution and prosperity for all. So how do we build consensus for this one-indicator-among-many outlook?

If you’re looking for a manual on how to throw out GDP and replace it with a measurement that puts people and planet first, this is not it. To be fair, Pilling states that he is not mounting an attack on growth, and he concedes that GDP can be a useful measurement. Still, it is a wonderful book. As a sceptical history of growth from economist Simon Kuznets’ invention of GDP in the 1930s to the reckless financialisation of the recent past, it’s a surprisingly addictive page turner, capable of captivating the general reader on a subject known for making eyes glaze over. Pilling may not have all the answers, but by injecting a credible dose of ambivalence into common assumptions about GDP he offers a very welcome entry into post-2008 economic writing.

Russell Warfield is a freelance writer.

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