Welcome to the third part of my economic series. This final part will explain what GDP is and why it is so often used as politicians go to economic figure of success or failure. Gross Domestic Product or GDP as I will call it by the acronym, is an economic indicator. It measures a very specific part of the economy in any given country. If you have not read parts ONE and TWO of this economic series I strongly suggest that you do. My first two parts of the series describe the arguments for and against minimum wage in part one. In part two, I go over the basics of government budget and taxation. It’s important to recognize that economics is a very complex subject and many topics involved having an understanding of other topics. In this case, I think that GDP is definitely the most advanced of all the topics that I have covered thus far. In order to properly discuss GDP and the politics that usually surround it, I feel its necessary to explain how it come to be and what it involves.
The book that has inspired me to write on this topic and my primary source of information is called GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History by Diane Coyle. Coyle’s book gives a full rundown of everything GDP. I would strongly recommend it because this post won’t even cover 1/4 of what she does in this book. Coyle gives a simple word breakdown of GDP. Gross meaning not deducted as opposed to net (Her example was like net weight of a cereal box, it’s only the weight of the cereal without the packaging) Product meaning stuff made, and Domestic is simply at home.(Page 7) GDP is much more complex than the three simple words that make up its name. The history and founding of GDP begins at the start of World War II. However, the idea goes back throughout the ages.
One of the many controversies over GDP that still exist today was first explored by one of the greatest economic scholars to ever write. Adam Smith wrote the Wealth of Nations. In his book, he went over some relevent facts of GDP. His point to paraphrase is this: The manufacturer that produces something with their labor creates value and adds it to the economy. The person who employs many menial servants grows poor while the person who employs many manufacturers grows rich. The point here being that Smith sees the production of goods as adding value to an economy. He sees the services of a servant or a service in general adds nothing. GDP has often not included services because it’s too hard to measure the true output of a teacher. Also the word “Product” in GDP lends itself to the production of goods not services. (Page 10)
GDP’s history comes out of collection of statistical data and economists. Colin Clark calculated the expenditures and national income of the United Kingdom. Clark based his work on a publication by Alfred Marshall who wrote Principals of Economics before the Great Depression. Franklin Roosevelt encourage more research and work on the national income and expenditures during the Great Depression. This led to Simon Kuznets to work with the National Bureau of Economic Research, which earned him a nobel prize. One of things that Kuznets brought up is an important facet of GDP. Kuznets thought that he was working to measure welfare rather than just output. GDP is often used to measure the welfare of any given country. However, because like I said previously, GDP is typically measured by the output of an economic. The problem of welfare and GDP is one of modern criticisms of GDP. Coyle dedicates two chapters to the subject of GDP and welfare. (Page 12-14)
I want to focus more on the particulars of GDP and how it’s calculated. Coyle covers this topic quite well. I want to save welfare and GDP for another post because it’s too much for this post. Coyle goes over the three different ways to measure and calculate GDP. She gives a two charts. One chart shows how these calculations are done. Since I don’t have the chart, I will just describe each way. The first way is a Value Added production. Value Added production adds up the Gross Output. The gross output is the all the sales made in an economy. The gross output excludes the inventory because it’s counted by the next category of intermediate inputs. Which stuff like staffing, inventory, and other things that businesses pay money for to make their business work. Finally you get to a number that tells you how much value added each industry in an economy.
The second way to calculate GDP is through Income (by type) approach. This approach uses a set of different incomes and expenditures to make final figure of Total Domestic Incomes earned. There are rental income, profits and proprietors’ income, Taxes on production and imports, Less: Subsidies, Interest and miscellaneous payments, and depreciation. These are the categories of the Income (by type) approach. The third way to calculate GDP is through Final Demand (or Expenditures) approach. This approach uses the sum of these categories to make up the final sales of domestic product to purchasers. The categories are the consumption of final goods and services by households; Investment in plant, equipment, and software; Government expenditures on good and services; and net exports of goods and services (export-import). No matter how you calculate GDP, the measurement always is trying measure how much an economy produces and what kind of income the country who benefits from it makes. (Page 25-26)
The most popular and most used method in modern times is the Expenditures approach. Coyle also goes over the equation along with an awesome chart. The equation simply is GDP= C+I+G+(X-M). The letters stand for Consumer Spending plus Investment plus government spending plus exports less imports. (Trade deficit/surplus). Coyle also tries to show some problems with the GDP equation which is mostly that GDP is not so simple. The categories have multiple sub-categories. There is a lot of gray area. The numbers can be shaky. However, in the end GDP is the most reliable measurement of economy. Coyle mentions other indicators which can help round out the welfare aspect and government impact. The awesome chart I was referring is a two circles. On the left side there is the word “Individuals” and on the right side there is “Business”. The top of the circles, have two words. On the bottom circle it says Expenditures, and on the top circle it says Goods and Services. In the lower two circles, the top one says Income and the bottom says Labor. (page 26-27)
The story is that Individuals and Businesses interact in two different ways. The circles represent the different ways. The bigger circle with Labor and Goods and Services basically shows that Individuals supply the labor for business. The Business supplies the good and services. This is basic economics, it shows a supply/demand for labor and good and services. The smaller circle with Expenditures and Income show that Businesses supply the Individual with income and the Individual supplies the business with Expenditures. The vice-versa is also true. Businesses make income on the Individual’s expenditures. This is a simple economics lesson that can help you understand GDP. (Page 27)
GDP is an important facet of economic measurement of any given country. As Coyle notes in later chapters which this post won’t cover, that GDP is not accurate in second and third world countries because of faulty accounting and statistics. She also covers a great deal of debate over whether welfare should be measured by GDP or not. These are more complex questions than I really want to go. I think the point of this post is to say that GDP is important to understand. GDP is not a true measure of welfare. It’s the statistical measure of economic input and output. As an example, GDP measures the number of phones that Apple sells after the release of the Iphone 7. It doesn’t take into account the welfare of the people who buy those phones. GDP is also a political tool especially when it comes to arguing over the economy.
Moving away from Coyle’s book in some ways, I want to briefly discuss why politicians like to use GDP. I think that much of the political controversy surrounding the use of GDP comes from the myths of GDP. Many people don’t realize the history of GDP. The misunderstanding of what GDP represents. Many politicans including present candidates for President seem to think that GDP shows how well the economy doing or more often how bad it’s doing. However, the reality is that GDP can fluctuate just based on how you calculate it. One increase or decrease in any given category there could be a 1-2 percent fluctuation. Another important myth to dispel is that government spending actually helps GDP. The debate that surrounds government spending and its effect on the economy is prevalent.
This is where I want to end this post and this series for now. My last words is that government spending doesn’t necessary make for the best economic move. The problem with government spending is that the government is NOT a business. Government makes their money from taxpayers. Its mandatory, you can’t just not pay taxes. It also makes a problem with counting the statistics for GDP. The government doesn’t have a real income with the exception taxes. This means that when the government tries to invest in anything it only represents an expenditure. If you recall the chart, the point of an economy is a cycle of labor into good and services that make income provided by expenditures. One example, that I know the best is that of the spending on the military. Military spending has often been one of the biggest items on US government budget. The national debt is nearly 20 trillion dollars. Some scholars have estimated that 16 trillion of that was spent during the cold war on military research and wars. The way that the DOD (Department of Defense) and the government have gone about spending this money is the problem. The military contracts assigned to military contractors during these years were given without little scrutiny. Many of the biggest contractors were able to contracts with no competition. The contracts included very little accountability or responsiblity especially in regards to money spent.
The point being is that GDP has actually suffered since the Cold War. This mainly due to stagnant economy. I mentioned that GDP doesn’t measure services which now is the most prominent feature of our economy. The reckless spending and bad fiscal policy by the government has given us some unfortunate consequences. GDP will always be controversial because of its complexity. I believe that its important to understand how GDP works. If you understand economics and GDP then you can understand that fallacy that politicians try to push on us. For me, this topic is fairly new but I wanted to try to introduce a little bit of the controversy and facts of economics and GDP.
Thanks you for reading! Have a great day!
Coyle, Diane. GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History. Prinction University Press, 2014.