The Power of a Single Number: A Political History of GDP by Philipp LepeniesThe Power of a Single Number: A Political History of GDP by Philipp Lepenies

The Power of a Single Number: A Political History of GDP

byPhilipp Lepenies

Hardcover | April 26, 2016

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Widely used since the mid-twentieth century, GDP (gross domestic product) has become the world's most powerful statistical indicator of national development and progress. Practically all governments adhere to the idea that GDP growth is a primary economic target, and while criticism of this measure has grown, neither its champions nor its detractors deny its central importance in our political culture.

In The Power of a Single Number, Philipp Lepenies recounts the lively history of GDP's political acceptance-and eventual dominance. Locating the origins of GDP measurements in Renaissance England, Lepenies explores the social and political factors that originally hindered its use. It was not until the early 1900s that an ingenuous lone-wolf economist revived and honed GDP's statistical approach. These ideas were then extended by John Maynard Keynes, and a more focused study of national income was born. American economists furthered this work by emphasizing GDP's ties to social well-being, setting the stage for its ascent. GDP finally achieved its singular status during World War II, assuming the importance it retains today. Lepenies's absorbing account helps us understand the personalities and popular events that propelled GDP to supremacy and clarifies current debates over the wisdom of the number's rule.

Philipp Lepenies is guest professor for social science at the Free University of Berlin. His research focuses on the success of economic ideas and concepts in politics. He is also the author of Art, Politics, and Development: How Linear Perspective Shaped Policies in the Western World (2013).
Title:The Power of a Single Number: A Political History of GDPFormat:HardcoverDimensions:208 pagesPublished:April 26, 2016Publisher:Columbia University PressLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0231175108

ISBN - 13:9780231175104

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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Power ... and responsibility "Gross domestic product (GDP) is the most powerful statistical figure in human history. No other indicator has ever had such an impact. At first glance, GDP is simply the measure of a country’s economic output, the value of all goods and services produced in a specific period, expressed as a number. However, GDP is far more than a mere statistic. Together with growth, which describes its rate of change, GDP serves as the key indicator of development and progress." So begins author Philipp Lepenies' 2013 book, recently translated to English. The opening paragraph establishes the importance of the subject, and readers might reasonably expect the following chapters to be full of statistical gymnastics. Instead, Lepenies delivers an engaging account of: the centuries of ideas that led to the establishment of GDP; its impact, for example in helping the West reach full productive capacity to win World War II; and its weaknesses, for example in politicians' increasingly slavish devotion to the economic measurement when it is demonstrably different than how we measure quality of life. Three people are central to the ideas behind GDP. First, William Petty in seventeenth century England tried to introduce a scientific rigour to politics through measurement and statistics, going so far as to calculate the theoretical tax burden on citizens that could be imposed in order to finance the ongoing war with France. Prior to Petty, taxes had been imposed at whim, often to suboptimal effect. Centuries later, a second Englishman, Colin Clark, introduced the notion that growth of the economy rather than just the level of production was the important measure, and that both the level and growth could be used as a basis for international comparison. Nobel laureate Simon Kuznets is the third central figure in Lepenies' book, who in addition to his many contributions to measurement of the level of GDP also stressed the importance of measuring the distribution of income within society. The book weaves important historical events and many economic luminaries (Malthus, Pigou, Marshall, Keynes, Adam Smith), and even some wartime kidnapping and intrigue into the text. This enhances the story line, and renders the occasional references to statistical methodologies - such as the explication of the three methodologies used to calculate GDP - as natural compliments rather than central issues. It also elevates the book's central point from 'this is how GDP works' to 'this is why we measure GDP'. A well-researched, well-written, and concise reminder of the adage that 'what gets measured gets done.' Lepenies provides context to the powerful single number driving modern politics, and gently reminds us that our lives are more than data points in pursuit of this number.
Date published: 2017-04-12

Table of Contents

Introduction1. What It's All About: A Short Primer on GDP2. William Petty and Political Arithmetic: The Origins of GDP3. The Frustrations of Colin Clark: England4. Simon Kuznets and the Politics of Gross National Product: The United States5. War, Kidnapping, and Data Theft: Germany6. The Ultimate Triumph of Gross National ProductConclusionNotesIndex

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