Name: Bochen Han
School: Duke University, USA
Level of education: second-year undergraduate
It’s time to dethrone the GDP
Every time I hear someone laud China or India for their impressive rates of growth, I cringe a little inside. When economists talk about “growth”, they are often referring to an increase in GDP. While I understand their premise, it makes no sense to me that we are congratulating countries for their success when they are ravaged by such rampant socioeconomic inequalities. Some have taken to call it ‘success with a blood-stained GDP’.
Modern society is driven by a fetishization of development. Development has become its own end, caught in what prominent social historian Arif Dirlik calls a “global economic horse race” where the ruling elites take incessant satisfaction in comparing each other’s GDP as a measure of effective governance and self-worth. Since the late 1930s the GDP has transformed from a narrow metric to a primary driver of political activity. So hegemonic an ideology it has become that most of us don’t realize that we’re getting the short end of the stick. Were I to stroll down the streets of poverty-stricken cancer villages in China today I would probably find proud, optimistic citizens boasting about their nation’s high GDP. Of course, they would know little about how the state authorities convinced local governments to accept relocated factories from urban centres and to bury warning signs of the enormous health risks that came with the factories.
Part of what drives capitalism’s exploitative potential is the moral confusion that surrounds the metrics of success. By allowing moral obligations to be reduced to simple, cold and impersonal statistics, we effectively grant financial institutions a free hand to disregard human consequences and to dictate the terms of global living. The GDP obtained worldwide domination precisely because it neglects judgments about the purpose, direction and consequences of economic activities. It obscures the negative externalities of pollution, sickness and depletion—all of which are borne disproportionately by the poor—and puts almost no value on justice, happiness, or the quality of education. Nature’s all-encompassing services, moreover, are not counted unless they can be exploited and sold. As Robert Kennedy said in his famous 1968 speech, “[the GDP] measures…everything…except that which makes life worthwhile.”
My political science professor puts it more bluntly: if he were to drive home safely after his class completely satisfied with how he interacted with his students, he would make zero impact on the GDP. If he were to drive home irritated with his teaching and get into a car accident—divorcing his wife by phone on the way—he would feed thousands in the form of medical and legal fees into the economy. And that would be excellent, according to our beloved economists.
Now, I am no economist or any type of expert. I’m just an inexperienced university student. And as that inexperienced university student I am worried that everything I do in the future will feed into the exploitative neoliberal system. If I want to achieve financial stability and provide for my family in the future, I will inevitably harm the people of underdeveloped nations. What makes me all the more uncomfortable is knowing that I will likely do so being fully aware of exactly how much damage I am doing.
I’m not proposing anything revolutionary. Everything I’ve written so far has been said in some form by experts and activists alike for decades. What we need to do now is listen to them, and bring their discussion to the mainstream and into the consciousness of young people. We, as professionals, educators, students, siblings and parents, need to re-shape the discourse that surrounds growth and development. I want to by the end of this century see a world where the language of national success and national pride is not based on the GDP or the return on investment, but on cultivating the happiest, most productive human beings and the healthiest natural environments.
The essential point is that our actions are almost always shaped by the factors we use to measure them. I want a society with a system that prioritizes human welfare, and which puts it as the fundamental unit. We need to embrace a metric that fully factors in the consequences of our actions, and that values vital ecosystem and human labour services currently outside of market considerations.
The good news is that we won’t have to start from scratch. Already, there are initiatives like the Human Development Index that are designed to measure and incentivize fairness and sustainability. It’s less that we need to create a completely new metric, and more that we need to crown a new king. We must dethrone the GDP on a global scale, and, building on existing indices, devise an alternative, more accountable indicator of national success that businesses can use when they make investment decisions, and that the IMF can use when deciding which states are credit-worthy. Let’s bring indices currently in the periphery—ones like the Gross National Happiness and the Genuine Progress Indictor—into the forefront where they belong. The GDP can stay if it must, as a subsidiary consideration, a factor among many. We need to start thinking about it for what it is, and only that: a narrow measure of economic output.
We need to start critically analyzing the numbers thrown out by our national governments and by prestigious intergovernmental institutions like the World Bank and the IMF. More importantly, we must start seriously discussing the questions that make us uncomfortable. What exactly is it that we are growing? Can humanity survive endless growth? If growth as we currently define it is to come at the sacrifice of human and environmental well-being, then is it really growth at all?
There’s no question that our current global economic system is unsustainable. We are in desperate need of top-down systemic change. To do this, we first need the leaders of tomorrow to understand exactly what type of world they are inheriting.
The stakes could not be higher. As we are told daily in the media, we are facing a global environmental crisis. Disease, hunger and malnutrition are still rampant in all corners of the globe. The divide between the rich and poor is still, as rhetoric holds, larger than ever. If we don’t start reshaping our economic and political ideology now, we will continue to push our planet to the edge in blind pursuit of indiscriminate growth.
At the end of the day, I simply want a decent planet to live in, and to eventually pass down to my children.