Genuine Progress Indicator


Since its introduction during World War II as a measure of wartime production capacity, the Gross National Product (since changed to Gross Domestic Product -- GDP) has become the nation's foremost indicator of economic progress. It is now widely used by policy makers, economists, international agencies and the media as the primary scorecard of a nation's economic health and well- being.

Yet the GDP was never intended for this role. It is merely a gross tally of products and services bought and sold, with no distinctions between transactions that add to well-being, and those that diminish it. Instead of separating costs from benefits, and productive activities from destructive ones, the GDP assumes that every monetary transaction adds to well-being, by definition. It is as if a business tried to assess its financial condition by simply adding up all "business activity," thereby lumping together income and expenses, assets and liabilities.

On top of this, the GDP ignores everything that happens outside the realm of monetized exchange, regardless of its importance to well-being. The crucial economic functions performed in the household and volunteer sectors go entirely ignored. The contributions of the natural habitat in providing the resources that sustain us go unreckoned as well. As a result, the GDP not only masks the breakdown of the social structure and natural habitat; worse, it actually portrays such breakdown as economic gain.


The Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) is a new measure of the economic well-being of the nation from 1950 to present. It broadens the conventional accounting framework to include the economic contributions of the family and community realms, and of the natural habitat, along with conventionally measured economic production.

The GPI takes into account more than twenty aspects of our economic lives that the GDP ignores. It includes estimates of the economic contribution of numerous social and environmental factors which the GDP dismisses with an implicit and arbitrary value of zero. It also differentiates between economic transactions that add to well-being and those which diminish it. The GPI then integrates these factors into a composite measure so that the benefits of economic activity can be weighed against the costs.

The GPI is intended to provide citizens and policy-makers with a more accurate barometer of the overall health of the economy, and of how our national condition is changing over time.

While per capita GDP has more than doubled from 1950 to present, the GPI shows a very different picture. It increased during the 1950s and 1960s, but has declined by roughly 45% since 1970. Further, the rate of decline in per capita GPI has increased from an average of 1% in the 1970s to 2% in the 1980s to 6% so far in the 1990s. This wide and growing divergence between the GDP and GPI is a warning that the economy is stuck on a path that imposes large -- and as yet unreckoned -- costs onto the present and the future.

Specifically, the GPI reveals that much of what economists now consider economic growth, as measured by GDP, is really one of three things: 1) fixing blunders and social decay from the past; 2) borrowing resources from the future; or 3) shifting functions from the community and household realm to that of the monetized economy. The GPI strongly suggests that the costs of the nation's current economic trajectory have begun to outweigh the benefits, leading to growth that is actually uneconomic.

If the mood of the public is any barometer at all, then it would seem that the GPI comes much closer than the GDP to the economy that Americans actually experience in their daily lives. It begins to explain why people feel increasingly gloomy despite official claims of economic progress and growth.

The GPI starts with the same personal consumption data the GDP is based on, but then makes some crucial distinctions. It adjusts for certain factors (such as income distribution), adds certain others (such as the value of household work and volunteer work), and subtracts yet others (such as the costs of crime and pollution). Because the GDP and the GPI are both measured in monetary terms, they can be compared on the same scale.

Source: Redefining Progress

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