Triple Dips, GDP and Sustainability
All eyes were on UK Chancellor George Osborne yesterday as the first quarter’s GDP growth results were released. If they were negative, then we would have been in a ‘triple-dip’ recession – don’t you love the way it rolls off the tongue – which would be terrible, and if positive then everything’s absolutely fantastic. It went positive and George sighed a big sigh of relief.
The whole hoo-hah over the figures of course is nonsense. The definition of recession – two negative quarters in a row – has absolutely no economic significance in itself. Statistically the UK economy has been flatlining for 18 months, and whether or not we hit the accepted definition of recession or not in this period makes little practical difference.
All this makes me think about the growth/no growth debate in the sustainability world. If this is what zero growth feels like, then nobody seems particularly happy with it. My argument is that we’ve never really tried to decouple GDP and, say, carbon emissions, so we don’t know whether the two are locked together as tightly as the no-growth proponents claim.
Which leads on to GDP itself. The big problem with this being the dominant measure of progress is that it treats all economic activity as equal whether that activity is highly socially/environmentally damaging or whether it adds value to society and the natural world. If we could get a better definition of GDP that focussed on ‘good’ economic activity, then the growth/no growth argument might become redundant.
Another aspect of the weakness of GDP was flagged up on BBC’s Today programme early yesterday morning. The debate was how come employment was increasing if there was no growth. Economist Prof Jonathan Haskell of Imperial Business School explained that method of calculating GDP used in the UK was developed in the grimy post-war times of Keynes and doesn’t handle ‘production’ from the modern knowledge economy. If we switched to the system used by the US, growth would leap by 1% – which would make George a very happy boy indeed.
But the implications of that current system is that relatively clean industries like software (and by extension the whole lightweight digital economy) don’t register as growth whereas old smokestack industries and resource intensive sectors like construction do – a perverse incentive. So, go on, Georgie boy, change the system and make us all happy.