Counting the Cost

In a presidential election year, voters are always urged to consider whether or not they are better off today than four years ago. The dubious implication is that the president is necessarily responsible for any change. Misleading as the question may actually be, it does raise the issue of what being "better off" means.

It's usually understood economically-the protests of people of faith notwithstanding-and the economists, politicians, and pundits routinely misrepresent growth or decline of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as an accurate measure of our economic well-being. The GDP records the dollar value of all our purchases of goods and services. It tells us how much money we've spent, but says nothing about how we've spent that money-on revitalizing our neighborhoods, or dumping nuclear waste. It doesn't even say whose money we've spent-whether we've earned it, borrowed it from overseas, or taken it from our grandkids. These shortcomings make the GDP a grossly inadequate indicator of economic health.

As an alternative, a San Francisco-based public policy group called Redefining Progress has proposed a more accurate measure of our economic performance-one that incorporates not only how much we've spent, but how we've spent it. The GPI, or Genuine Progress Indicator, subtracts environmental and social costs, including pollution, family breakdown, car accidents, ozone depletion, lost leisure time, and so forth. It also adds the value of unpaid work in the home and in the community, vital contributions ignored by traditional economic yardsticks.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 1996
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