Adding creative endeavors to GDP

The federal government is set to change how it measures GDP and the new measure will include creative work:

The change is relatively simple: The BEA will incorporate into GDP all the creative, innovative work that is the backbone of much of what the United States now produces. Research and development has long been recognized as a core economic asset, yet spending on it has not been included in national accounts. So, as the Wall Street Journal noted, a Lady Gaga concert and album are included in GDP, but the money spent writing the songs and recording the album are not. Factories buying new robots counted; Pfizer’s expenditures on inventing drugs were not.

As the BEA explains, it will now count “creative work undertaken on a systematic basis to increase the stock of knowledge, and use of this stock of knowledge for the purpose of discovering or developing new products, including improved versions or qualities of existing products, or discovering or developing new or more efficient processes of production.” That is a formal way of saying, “This stuff is a really big deal, and an increasingly important part of the modern economy.”

The BEA estimates that in 2007, for example, adding in business R&D would have added 2 percent to U.S. GDP, or about $300 billion. Adding in the various inputs into creative endeavors such as movies, television and music will mean an additional $70 billion. A few other categories bring the total addition to over $400 billion. That is larger than the GDP of more than 160 countries…

The new framework will not stop the needless and often harmful fetishizing of these numbers. GDP is such a simple round number that it is catnip to commentators and politicians. It will still be used, incorrectly, as a proxy for our economic lives, and it will still frame our spending decisions more than it should. Whether GDP is up 2 percent or down 2 percent affects most people minimally (down a lot, quickly, is a different story). The wealth created by R&D that was statistically less visible until now benefited its owners even those the figures didn’t reflect that, and faster GDP growth today doesn’t help a welder when the next factory will use a robot. How wealth is used, who benefits from it and whether it is being deployed for sustainable future growth, that is consequential. GDP figures, even restated, don’t tell us that.

On one hand, changing a measure so that more accurately reflects the economy is a good thing. This could help increase the validity of the measure. On the other hand, measures still can be used well or poorly, the change may not be a complete improvement over previous measures, and it may be difficult to reconcile new figures with past figures. It is not quite as easy as simply “improving” a measure; a lot of other factors are involved. It will be interesting to see how this measurement change sorts out in the coming years and how the information is utilized.

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