GDP: The Benchmark of Economic Growth
More than once over the years this column has sought to expose the absurdity of Gross Domestic Product calculations. On their face they presume that the U.S. is an isolated economic island, rather than an integrated aspect of a global economic whole. Nobel Laureate Robert Mundell long ago observed that the only closed economy is the world economy, and as such, U.S. production (think the globalized manufacture of Apple’s iPad (AAPL), or Boeing’s (NYSE:BA) 787 Dreamliner) is a function of ties to economic activity occurring around the world. GDP presumes a country alone, and worse uniformity; the latter certainly belied by the profound difference between New York City and its neighbor in New Jersey, Newark.
Worse, what often drives GDP up is far from something that would be considered economically stimulative. Indeed, government measures of inflation are notoriously slow to pick up on the horrors of dollar devaluation, but when devaluation leads to higher prices, GDP increases. Government spending, for the latter having no resources that it hasn’t first extracted from the private sector also boosts GDP, and then if imports to the U.S. decline (a flashing negative economic signal if there ever was one), this actually registers as growth in the calculation of this most worthless of measures of our economic health.After that, it’s time to abolish GDP because its existence as the accepted measure of economic activity means that we cannot achieve the necessary reforms that would really allow our economy to grow. With so much of our economy directed towards work of little to no economic value, but which ultimately factors into the GDP calculation, we’re restrained from doing what we need to do to truly advance ourselves.
First up is regulation. As even President Obama acknowledges, regulation frequently serves as a barrier to productivity. We’ll see if he’s ever willing to back up his rhetoric with action (signing the REINs Act would be a big step), but for now regulations serve as a massive hurdle to businesses seeking profits for their shareholders by virtue of giving their customers what they want, along with things they didn’t know they want, but now can’t live without – think Google, Facebook and just about anything Apple produces.
Of course if there occurs a massive regulatory overhaul based on the correct kind of analysis which will show regulations merely inhibit profitable activity at best, and frequently miss corrupt actions at worst (Madoff), many in the U.S. whose livelihood is dependent on either regulating what they cannot, or helping businesses deal with regulators, will find themselves out of work. Their unemployment will in the near-term show up in reduced GDP, but the end result will be undeniably positive.
Looking at the estate tax alone, it discourages the very saving that authors our economic advancement, but its existence is a windfall for the myriad estate planners and attorneys in possession of the skills necessary to help those with estates to avoid the tax. Abolishing the death tax would be a major boon for economic growth for it releasing those reliant on it into worthwhile professions, but for a time their adjustment would detract from GDP “growth.”
Considering the floating dollar itself, the utter chaos caused by the latter has created whole industries meant to soften the blow of a dollar without definition. The currency market alone is a $3 trillion per day exchange as myriad great minds are forced into facilitator roles as traders of needless uncertainty, as opposed to producers. We’d have to invent hedge funds if they didn’t exist, but their growing footprint can to a high degree be laid at the door of President Nixon’s fateful 1971 decision to sever the dollar’s link to gold.
Banks and investment banks on their own have growing compliance staffs in place to deal with all of the rules foisted on them. Abolishment of what won’t work in the form of Dodd-Frank, not to mention the stabilization of the dollar such that it becomes the proverbial foot would release countless agile minds from facilitator roles, some who will cure cancer, some who will create the next Microsoft, and some who will render the hell that his commercial air travel to the dustbin of history through making private travel as common as cellphones.
But to achieve the above, there would have to be a “recession” that would drive down GDP early on, but boost it in staggering ways long-term. In a nation brimming with talent, too many of our best and brightest are serving as facilitators to the detriment of real economic growth.
Lastly, a powerful reduction in government spending would surely bring down GDP substantially. Governments can only create jobs and economic activity to the extent that they take from the private sector, so major spending cuts at first would bring great pain to sectors of the economy in and out of government, but wholly reliant on government largesse.
All of the above is true, but then it’s also true that government spending is almost tautologically about capital destruction, as opposed to wealth creation. If this is doubted, ask yourself if any company in the private sector could ever remain in business if it had lost money for decades, with decades more of losses ahead?
But assuming serious downsizing of the government, workers and the capital destroyed to keep them employed would quickly find other, market-driven uses in the private sector. Government spending presently looms large when it comes to boosting GDP, true austerity would as a result reduce nominal GDP substantially up front such that dim economists would scream “recession”, but the long-term and economy-soaring result of such a move would be profoundly good for us all.
The problem now is that so worshipful and fearful of GDP are economists and politicians that reducing regulations in a credible way, stabilizing the dollar and slashing the burden that is government is a distant object to many. It is at least partially because GDP remains the benchmark for our economic health. Let’s abolish it so that we can start growing again.