Yes, GDP is (almost) everything


Shipping containers piling up at the port of Savannah in September 2021 © New York Times / Redux / eyevine

Robert Kennedy was at least eloquent in his sanctimony. “Gross national product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising,” he said in 1968, but not the “beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages”. Napalm, prisons, tree-felling, violent television and guns, one of which would serve as the instrument of his murder three months later: these made their way into the growth data. “That which makes life worthwhile” didn’t.

David Cameron in 2006 was drabber in speech but of the same mind. “It’s time we admitted that there’s more to life than money,” said the future adviser to Greensill Capital, touting GWB — “general well-being” — as the nobler heir to GDP. Only a fog-headed Sloane would talk like that, I thought. Nearly fifteen years later, lots of furloughed and fiscally cushioned people could be heard to wonder if Mother Earth was telling us to slow down and relegate the act of economic production.

As with the death of air travel (it is nearing 2019 levels) and the end of nightlife (you try getting a table) that trope is heard less and less now. And it lasted not a beat longer than it deserved to. 

The looming recession will be painful. But it will also drive a certain kind of post-materialist humbug from polite discourse. Growth will be harder to dismiss as a bean counter’s tawdry obsession when there is so little of the stuff to go round.

There are two problems with the line that GDP isn’t everything. One is that no sentient being has ever claimed that it is. The other is that GDP is very nearly everything. Immigrants versus nativists, cities versus provinces: the cultural fault lines that marble the body politic of the western world were there before the crash of 2008. The difference was that governments could veil them with cash. I lived through consecutive UK elections in which much higher spending was tabled without much higher taxes. As the nation outside London presses ahead with its bid for middle-income status, that civic peace will be harder to buy. A slowing China might discover the same. Proverbs 10:12 should have said that growth, not love, covers a multitude of sins. 

In the economic history course he teaches at LSE, an acquaintance, Dr Tim Leunig, shows that rich nations are better at almost all the things we care about than poor ones. This includes things as costless as female suffrage and not committing homicide. Sweden might condescend to America on some fronts, and Denmark to Britain, but this is an argument within the one per cent of nations. The upkeep of national monuments costs money. The writing of poetry depends on leisure, which costs money. The Kennedy-Cameron line (both rich kids, note) between growth and life’s higher callings is not so easy to draw.

And still people draw it. Because I got lucky — no symptoms, no hospitalised relatives or close friends — what most haunted me about the pandemic was not the health effects. It was the speed with which people questioned if modernity was worth the candle. To predict the decline of massed, fast-moving humanity is merely pessimistic. To actively will it is getting on to be romantic and even reactionary. The urban resurgence has killed off those pastoral dreams (I find myself becoming emotional in traffic jams now) but their appeal, even to colleagues, will be harder to forget. 

It was always there, I suppose, in Nimbyism. It was there in a certain appetite for the medieval in 21st-century entertainment: Wolf HallGame of Thrones, the pre-industrial Britain of the otherwise well-judged Olympic opening ceremony 10 summers ago. What the pandemic did was bring this nostalgia for a less dynamic past out of people and lend it a spurious credibility. That political space where the green, the conservative and the leftist meet turned out to be crammed.

No doubt, a recession will concentrate minds. As public spaces fray, and relationships come under strain, and leisure becomes less affordable, people will rediscover the foundational role of growth to almost everything they cherish. The question is whether the hard-won lesson will survive the next complacent boom, the next oration against growth and its likeliest maker: the next monarch.

Email Janan at janan.ganesh@ft.com

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