Power to Choose the Mismeasure of Humanity

If you push enough oats into a horse some will spill out and feed the sparrows.

Horse and Sparrow Economic Theory

The rich man may feast on caviar and champagne, while the poor women starves at his gate. And she may not even take the crumbs from his table, if that would deprive him of his pleasure in feeding them to his birds.

Gauthier 1986, 218, Morals by Agreement, Oxford University Press

The power to choose the measure of success

The successful campaign to eliminate distributional issues from the core of the economic discipline has its mirror image in the popularity of GDP as the measure of economic success of a nation. While the pioneer of national accounting (i.e., GDP), Simon Kusnetz, explicitly said that GDP should not be used as a measure of welfare, and few economists would explicitly advocate such use, it is also true that economists as a group have done precious little to counter the popular opinion that growth, in the sense of maximization of GDP, should be the main goal of economic policy.

GDP is the money value of final goods and services that an economy produces in a quarter or a year (i.e., not including those goods and services used as inputs in production of other goods and services). This definition makes it … a reasonable yardstick of how much money moved around in a quarter or a year, and therefore captures to some extent how much economic activity in money terms there was in that period. It is a poor measure of actual activity in absolute terms due to using money rather than physically measuring human activity or indicators of human activity (e.g., how many tons of material were moving around in a year, or how many bits of information were exchanged in a year). Some activity that commands a large premium in money terms for institutional reasons, like investment banking, even if it is only one powerful person doing a moderate amount of work, will count the same as activities of hundreds of factory workers and much more than the activity of millions of housewives. Societal changes like providing more institutional childcare or reigning in the market power of investment banks can make a huge difference in terms of measured GDP, without significantly changing the actual activities performed. Because of this reliance on using money valuations, GDP has severe issues with accurately measuring technological progress. (Häring et. al. 2012, 28-29)

This method of measuring economic activity has two things going for it. It makes the mathematics a lot easier than measuring in a sensible way. And it conforms with the implicit assumptions if mainstream economics that an extra dollar is worth the same to a poor person than it is to a rich person, just as it makes no differentiation between types of activity, for instance whether they are good (i.e., charitable work) or bad (i.e. criminal activity). If a hedge fund manager makes five billion dollars in a good year, as John Paulson reportedly did in 2010 (Burton and Kishan 2011), this is must as good in GDP terms as 13.7 million people living on a dollar a day doubling their incomes. (Häring et. al. 2012, 29)

Policies that treat human beings as social creatures and try to reach the best results in the most important dimensions of human goals cannot flag their success with equally prominent and simple statistical measures like a single number where higher is “better.” The rich and wealthy benefit most from this way of measuring the economic success of a nation, since it de-emphasizes the gains of the mass low-income people relative to those of a minority if rich people. As far as nations are concerned, it benefits nations that champion the policies favored by this approach, with the US being foremost among these. (Häring, Norbert and Douglas Nial. Economists and the Powerful [Convenient Theories, Distorted Facts, Ample Rewards]. New York: Anthem Press; 2012; pp. 28-29.)

~ ~ ~


Unless you have a PhD in economics, you probably think it uncontroversial to argue that we should be concerned about the unemployment rate. Those of you who lost a job, or who have struggled to find a job on leaving school, college, or a university, are well aware that unemployment is a painful and dehumanizing experience. You may be surprised to learn that, for the past thirty-five years, the models used by academic economists and central bankers to understand how the economy works have not included unemployment as a separate category. In almost every macroeconomic seminar I attended, from 1980 through 2007, it was accepted that all unemployment is voluntary. (Farmer 2017, 47)

In 1960, almost all macroeconomists talked about involuntary unemployment and they assumed, following Keynes, the quantity of labor demanded is not equal to the quantity of labor supplied. That view of economics was turned on its head, almost single-handedly, by Robert Lucas. Lucas persuaded macroeconomists that it makes no sense to talk about disequilibrium in any market and he initiated a revolution in macroeconomics that reformulated the discipline using pre-Keynesian classical assumptions. (Farmer 2017, 47)

The idea that all unemployment is voluntary is called the equilibrium approach to labor markets. Lucas wrote his first article on this idea in 1969 in a coauthored paper with Leonard Rapping. His ideas received a big boost during the 1980s when Finn Kydland, Edward C. Prescott, Charles Long, and Charles Plosser persuaded macroeconomists to use a mathematical approach, called the Ramsey growth model, as a new paradigm for business cycle theory. The theory of real business cycles, or RBCs, was born. According to this theory, we should think about consumption, investment, and employment “as if” they were the optimal choices of a single representative agent with superhuman perception of the probabilities of future events. (Farmer 2017, 47-48)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s