GDP: The Global Pissing Contest

I don’t remember the first time I questioned how my conventional success fits within the larger scheme of the United States economy. I was valedictorian of my high school and went to a top university. Getting good grades took precedence over becoming a knowledgeable, curious, and helpful person. I hardly read any books for pleasure until my twenties.

Grades and test scores are clear (albeit flawed) measures of a person’s competence in a given area. In general, a person who is high-achieving by these metrics can get into a better university or get a better job. And for any country, having more of these “successful” people can increase its competitiveness relative to the rest of the world.

But what is success? Is it having high marks in school and, later, a high salary at work? These strivings establish a hierarchy, but what do they actually measure? 

There are zero interesting images to represent GDP, so here’s my shot of the king tides in Cape Perpetua

Similar to grades, the way we size ourselves up against other countries is flawed. On the global stage, the United States considers its economic growth to be imperative. And we define growth as an increase in the production of goods and services, which is typically measured by gross domestic product or GDP (per capita).

The GDP is widely accepted as a proxy measure for our advancement as a nation. It doesn’t matter what the growth actually represents—weapons manufacturing, trashy entertainment, energy-intensive cryptocurrency, junk food—as long as the United States’ production of goods and services continues to swell. 

But trying to achieve the highest GDP among nations is an interminable pissing contest. Beyond the point where our basic needs are covered—shelter, food, healthcare, education, services—the growth of an economy for growth’s sake isn’t beneficial, particularly when those who most need the goods and services don’t have the money to purchase them. 

Our relentless focus on GDP and American economic interests also has soured our relationships with other countries. We’ve helped overthrow many democratically elected leaders to advance businesses (or promote anti-communism), including Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran, Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala, Patrice Lumumba in the Republic of the Congo, and Salvador Allende in Chile. During the past two decades, we’ve killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghani civilians in our violent thirst for oil. And I surmise that driving the current swell of anti-Chinese sentiment is our jealousy of their economic growth—the Chinese will soon supplant the U.S. in having the largest economy in the world, and Americans are livid. 

These represent only a fraction of the atrocities (and missed opportunities for international collaboration) committed in the name of “American interests.” This is the grisly reality behind our economic dominance: we’re publicly focused on the wrong metrics of success. 

Within our borders, people fare very poorly compared to other developed nations. We have soaring rates of homelessness, drug overdoses, child poverty, debt, and maternal mortality. Most of our elected leaders on both sides of the aisle are beholden to wealthy companies and individuals.

This is a system driven by ruthless greed and one-upmanship. There’s no trust in fellow citizens or in our institutions, only a nagging fear that most of us are one medical emergency away from personal bankruptcy. 

These feelings of financial anxiety also feed our misogyny, racism, and xenophobia. The most powerful and wealthy people within this country benefit from our infighting: when the republicans channel their rage at immigrants or the democrats channel their rage at straight white men, there’s less energy left over to organize labor movements, break up monopolies, close tax loopholes that favor the wealthy, hold our leaders accountable, or focus on the threat of global warming.

The future of all nations is too interconnected to engage in this petty global competition. The ruthless, zero-sum mindset is medieval: with the world’s collective technological progress, we have a unique opportunity to improve the lives of a broader swath of folks without further polluting our planet. 

But this coordination will take a complete overhaul of the capitalist me-first, scarcity-fearing mentality: it will require true generosity on the part of individuals, companies, and nations. 

It may be convenient to capture a country’s well-being in a single figure like the GDP, but it’s inaccurate. So let’s consider a better gauge of human progress for the contemporary world. 

A more adequate measure would consider:

  • The lifespan and standard of living of the people 
  • Access to high-quality, affordable education
  • Universal housing and healthcare
  • The health of the ecosystem and stewardship of the land
  • The vibrancy of communities
  • Adoption of renewable energy 
  • Our ability to be generous (e.g., helping struggling countries with their basic sanitation and infrastructure) 

These areas are harder to measure than the GDP, but focusing on what really matters is an important first step to digging out the selfish rot at the heart of our culture. 

Many point to Bhutan’s gross national happiness as an alternative. It gauges its country’s well-being in nine domains

1. Psychological well-being

2. Material well-being/standard of living

3. Good governance

4. Health

5. Education

6. Community vitality

7. Cultural diversity and resilience

8. Balanced time use

9. Ecological diversity

Measuring each of these and capturing them into one GDH figure are challenges, but they reflect nobler goals than the GDP.

Other GDP alternatives exist: 

  • The relatively simple human development index measures the capabilities and potential of people, focusing on longevity, education, and income. 
  • The sustainable development index considers a human development score (i.e., life expectancy, education, and income) and divides it by their ecological overshoot (i.e., “the extent to which consumption-based CO2 emissions and material footprint exceed fair shares of planetary boundaries”).
  • Finally, the New Zealand living standards framework has three broad measures: individual and collective well-being, the functioning of institutions and government, and the “wealth” of the country (including human capability and environmental considerations). 

As long as the United States—one of the most aggressive polluters in the world—does not teach its students or citizens about GDP alternatives, we’ll continue to strive toward the wrong goals. 

Reaching for international economic dominance is wasteful, cruel, antiquated, and childish. The bottom line is this: being a generous, environmentally conscious person or country is more difficult to measure or implement, but it’s the right thing to do for posterity. 

Welcome, fans and hecklers!