GDP is not fit for purpose any more. To save democracy, we need new economic metrics

Chancellor Philip Hammond, who gives his first budget today. Image: Getty.

In 2008, the world missed a huge opportunity to transform how we think about the economy. This culminated in two political earthquakes eight years later that have rocked the global order to its core.

There is every chance Brexit and a Donald Trump presidency could have been avoided, had politicians and “experts” capitalised on the opening provided by the Great Recession. We should have re-written the rules governing our economies and global capitalism.

Failing to reform the most basic one – how we measure economic success – fuelled the growing wedge between what the experts were telling us (there’s been a recovery) and what ordinary people were actually experiencing (there hadn’t). Decision-makers continued to privilege the former while only paying lip service to the latter, helping to trigger a populist backlash. 

Politicians knew this could have been avoided, because they almost came up with a solution. In 2008, right-wing French president Nickolas Sarkozy commissioned heavyweight economist Joseph Stiglitz to run a Commission that would give us the tools to assess our economies in new ways – on the grounds that GDP could not tell us anything useful about how well economic output was being converted into better lives and livelihoods for people.

GDP may have been a somewhat useful proxy for welfare in the age of mass production and full employment, but not so in an era of globalisation, service-based economies and labour market turbulence. The UK government under David Cameron responded by looking for the right answer in the wrong direction, developing the Gross Domestic Happiness and subjective wellbeing initiatives. But these indicators have sat in the shadow of mainstream statistics, rarely shaping serious economic analyses.

The lens through which our political leaders saw and made decisions about the economy changed very little. Three things have generally been used to vindicate the British Government’s “long term economic plan”: financial savings (austerity), GDP growth, and dropping unemployment rates.

But this narrow diagnostic has only served to disguise structural economic problems (such as chronically low productivity), stagnating or dropping living standards for many people and places, and a sharp rise in low pay and economic insecurity. Sure, we have been getting some growth and record employment: but families haven’t been getting better off, not least because these jobs haven't been providing enough to make ends meet.


This is why, as the Final Report of the Inclusive Growth Commission published this week argues, “business as usual” is no longer good enough. We need to define and measure economic success in a new way, looking not just at the quantity of growth but also its quality. This, in our assessment, forms one of the five cornerstone principles of inclusive growth: we must track the human experience of growth, not just its rate. 

There are three key things wrong with the way we design, collect, report and apply economic statistics. First, as GDP critics have argued, the indicators that shape our policymaking and public debate are unjustifiably narrow. As a result, they lead to conflation on an industrial scale. Growth in output is conflated with growth in productivity and economic dynamism; growth in employment is conflated with growth in family incomes; and extremely narrow economic indicators (such as GDP) are conflated with broad improvements in human and societal wellbeing.

It is in our cities where much of this conflation has its most perverse effects. Our report reinforces the evidence that cities are the hubs of economic growth, but also where inequality and deprivation tend to reach their peak. The disparities within London tell their own story. 

Second, we too often deal in aggregates, national aggregates in particular. These aggregates – whether it is GDP, employment rates or household incomes – conceal the significant variations that exist between different places and different groups of people.

This is what Bank of England’s chief economist Andrew Haldane discovered when he toured Britain to understand why so many people claimed not to have felt the post-recession recovery despite GDP growth, a jobs boom and growing market confidence. He found that, when you cut up and disaggregated the data, things became much clearer: this was a recovery “which for most has been slow and low, for many partial and patchy and for some invisible and incomplete”.

Just look at the employment gap for disabled people: it has actually grown from 30 to 32 percentage points since 2010. There has been no jobs miracle for most of the 7m working age disabled people in the UK. Similarly, if you studied the job creation statistics in the US you would have seen an important precursor to the grievances that propelled Trump into power: a lot of good quality jobs have been created since 2008, but nearly all of them have gone to college graduates. Those with less formal education, who had already lost out from the “adjustment costs” of globalisation, did not see a recovery.

Estimated average household income (after housing costs) by middle layer super output area, England and Wales (2014), with proportions of neighbourhoods in selected city regions in top and bottom 20 per cent of income distribution (2014). Click to expand. Source: RSA Visual Analysis of ONS (2016).

Thirdly, privileging a small set of economic indicators has had a distortive effect on our decision-making. Everything from our infrastructure choices and public investment decisions through to our inward investment strategies has become a narrow numbers game: evaluated against GVA uplift or numbers of jobs created, but not on the quality and inclusiveness of the output and employment. It is little wonder, then, that state investment too often reinforces inequality instead of tackling it. 

So what can we do about it? Most crucially, we need genuine parity between GDP and other important, distributional indicators. This is why we argue that the quarterly GDP statistics should be published alongside other measures such as mean and median wage growth and employment statistics, as part of the same release. GDP should no longer be seen as the gold standard for health-checking our economy.

Similarly, rather than making public investment decisions on the basis of GVA impact, they should explicitly be made according the wider “quality GVA” they create. The same should apply to the money being channelled through devolution deals and any post-Brexit substitute programmes for EU funds. Clearly, this also means we will need to collect granular statistics (regional, neighbourhood and below) much more thoroughly and comprehensively and increasingly – with technological and data advances – in real time. 

Our towns and cities must also show leadership in mainstreaming new ways of measuring and evaluating economic success. Through the course of our Commission we encountered examples of this happening already: from Glasgow’s tools to “poverty proof” its budgets and policies through to Greater Manchester and other city regions’ work on tracking inclusive growth and ensuring investment decisions can support “quality job” creation. As the Commission argues in its final report, places should tailor what they measure to suit local circumstances and the priorities set by their citizens.

Examples of the type of data that local leaders could draw on to track inclusive growth. Click to expand. Source: RSA Inclusive Growth Commission (2017).

Internationally, cities are spearheading real innovation in redefining economic success and how to measure and track it. They have the potential to develop 21st century tools for measuring what counts, helped by advancements in big data and machine learning (which can, for example, enable real-time tracking of social outcomes without the lag of conventional public data).

So what might this new approach to measurement and application of economic statistics achieve? At the very least, it would force us to have a different sort of conversation about growth. Importantly, this would not be confined to temporary debates that follow crises. The publication of quarterly inclusive growth statistics would keep the agenda live and mainstream.

It would also ensure that as a society the criteria through which we judge ourselves (and our politicians, public services and businesses) have a real connection to the lived experiences of people. Decision-making could potentially be radically transformed, as could the trust between policymakers and citizens. It could reconnect people to their communities, economy and democracies.

In 2008 we let a huge social moment slip. Despite the Great Recession ripping to shreds our core economic dogmas, we reverted to type in the period that followed. We cannot afford to do the same again in our current social moment. We must begin to measure what counts. 

Atif Shafique is Lead Researcher for the RSA Inclusive Growth Commission. You can find him on Twitter @Atif_Shafique.

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Is Britain’s housing crisis a myth?

Council housing in Lambeth, south London. Image: Getty.

I’ve been banging on about the need for Britain to build more houses for so long that I can no longer remember how or when it started. But at some point over the last few years, the need to build more homes has become My Thing. People ask me to speak at housing events, or @ me into arguments they’re having on Twitter on a Sunday morning in the hope I’ll help them out. You can even buy a me-inspired “Build More Bloody Houses” t-shirt.

It’s thus with trepidation about the damage I’m about to do to my #personal #brand that I ask:

Does Britain actually have enough houses? Is it possible I’ve been wrong all this time?

This question has been niggling away at me for some time. As far back as 2015, certain right-wing economists were publishing blogs claiming that the housing crisis was actually a myth. Generally the people who wrote those have taken similarly reality-resistant positions on all sorts of other things, so I wasn’t too worried.

But then, similar arguments started to appear from more credible sources. And today, the Financial Times published an excellent essay on the subject under the headline: “Hammond’s housebuilding budget fix will not repair market”.

All these articles draw on the data to make similar arguments: that the number of new homes built has consistently been larger than the number of new households; that focusing on new home numbers alone is misleading, and we should look at net supply; and that the real villain of the piece is the financialisation of housing, in which the old and rich have poured capital into housing for investment reasons, thus bidding up prices.

In other words, the data seems to suggest we don’t need to build vast numbers of houses at all. Have I been living a lie?

Well, the people who’ve been making this argument are by and large very clever economists trawling through the data, whereas I, by contrast, am a jumped-up internet troll with a blog. And I’m not dismissing the argument that the housing crisis is not entirely about supply of homes, but also about supply of money: it feels pretty clear to me that financialisation is a big factor in getting us into this mess.

Nonetheless, for three reasons, I stand by my belief that there is housing crisis, that it is in large part one of supply, and consequently that building more houses is still a big part of the solution.

Firstly I’m not sold on some of the data – or rather, on the interpretation of it. “There is no housing crisis!” takes tend to go big on household formation figures, and the fact they’ve consistently run behind dwelling numbers. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? By definition you can’t form a household if you don’t have a house.

So “a household” is not a useful measure. It doesn’t tell you if everyone can afford their own space, or whether they are being forced to bunk up with friends or family. In the latter situation, there is still a housing crisis, whatever the household formation figures say. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that’s the one we’re living in.

In the same way I’m not quite convinced that average rents is a useful number. Sure, it’s reassuring – and surprising – to know they have grown slower than general prices (although not in London). But all that figure tells you is the price being paid: it doesn’t tell you what is being purchased for that payment. A world in which renters each have their own property may have higher rents than one in which everyone gets one room in an over-crowded shared flat. It’s still the latter which better fits the label “housing crisis”.

Secondly, I’m entirely prepared to believe we’ve been building enough homes in this country to meet housing demand in the aggregate: there are parts of the country where housing is still strikingly affordable.

But that’s no use, because we don’t live in an aggregate UK: we live and work in specific places. Housing demand from one city can be met by building in another, because commuting is a thing – but that’s not always great for quality of life, and more to the point there are limits on how far we can realistically take it. It’s little comfort that Barnsley is building more than enough homes, when the shortage is most acute in Oxford.

So: perhaps there is no national housing crisis. That doesn’t mean there is not a housing crisis, in the sense that large numbers of people cannot access affordable housing in a place convenient for their place of work. National targets are not always helpful.


Thirdly, at risk of going all “anecdote trumps data”, the argument that there is no housing crisis – that, even if young people are priced out of buying by low interest rates, we have enough homes, and rents are reasonable – just doesn’t seem to fit with the lived experience reported by basically every millennial I’ve ever met. Witness the gentrification of previously unfashionable areas, or the gradual takeover of council estates by private renters in their 20s. 

A growing share of the population aren’t just whining about being priced out of ownership: they actively feel that housing costs are crushing them. Perhaps that’s because rents have risen relative to wages; perhaps it’s because there’s something that the data isn’t capturing. But either way, that, to me, sounds like a housing crisis.

To come back to our original question – will building more houses make this better?

Well, it depends where. National targets met by building vast numbers of homes in cities that don’t need them probably won’t make a dent in the places where the crisis is felt. But I still struggle to see how building more homes in, say, Oxford wouldn’t improve the lot of those at the sharp end there: either bringing rents down, or meaning you get more for your money.

There is a housing crisis. It is not a myth. Building more houses may not be sufficient to solve it – but that doesn’t meant it isn’t necessary.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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