Assa, J. (2019), “Gross Domestic Power: A History of GDP as Numerical Rhetoric”, Annals of the Fondazione Luigi Einaudi, 53(2): 81-96.
Histories of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – both critical and favorable – have become somewhat of a cottage industry since the global financial crisis of 2008. Following the Stiglitz Commission, numerous general-audience books have appeared, describing the rise of GDP, analyzing its limitations, and offering reforms or alternatives. These histories, however, suffer from three key problems. First, nearly all begin in the 1930s, following the Great Depression and the lead-up to World War II. Very little if anything is said of the 250 preceding years, a period implicitly thought of as a pre-history of GDP. Second, and as a result of this limited chronological lens, GDP is considered to be a statistical measure, the shortcomings and merits of which are presented as technical and ascribed to the narrow objectives facing its 20th century architects. Third, the proposed reforms are meant to improve on GDP’s statistical limitations (e.g. using dashboards, accounting for unpaid care-work or environmental costs etc.). These three problems are related, and this paper presents an alternative history of national accounting, considering geo-political and political-economy contexts going back to the 17th century. This longer and broader view reveals the exercise of estimating national income or wealth as a form of numerical rhetoric. Rather than a statistical measure, GDP is an indicator of power (for countries, classes and industries) as well as an instrument for advocating specific policies. Therefore, any critique must go beyond technical issues and fixes, and look at the political context and consequences of various historical versions of GDP, and any possible democratic reform of it.