"Black" GDP, Far from the Common Good

Commentaries - The Choice that Denies the Goal of Economy

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 29/05/2014

Eurostat ridWe always knew that the Gross Domestic Product does not measure much and that many of the things that it measures it measures badly - and we often and willingly say this on these pages. But no one has ever thought of eliminating GDP to let other indicators of well-being take its place, because although democracy has a growing need for more economic and social indicators, it is still important to have an indicator of the production of goods and services of a country. The GDP is full of data that say little about our well-being or express exactly the opposite (e.g. gambling).

But so far all this huge amount of data - of a discordant ethical sign - moved (or we wanted it to move) within the boundaries marked by the rule of law. According to the announcement made last week, if we really continue in the direction indicated by Eurostat, in addition to the usual ambivalence of the data we will see a change in their nature: the GDP will not have any more connection with civil life and the ethical sphere.

If criminal activities (starting from drug trafficking, through exploitation of prostitution to smuggling) will really be incorporated in the GDP, we will have no more indication of the substantial variations of that indicator, and it will become a pointless exercise to rejoice over having brought it back into the positive zone. That's why the first ones to grieve for this new era are us, the economists, even though we are representatives of a category that shines too often because of cynicism and considers these issues only arguments for nostalgic moralists as they are a bit naive and maybe not too smart. However, we should be very sad and protest, because a GDP that becomes what we are making of it right now will have lost all contact with the great tradition of the economic science. And not only with the civil economics of Antonio Genovesi (this is obvious), but also with that of Adam Smith, a tradition that has always considered the production of goods and services as something ethically good as a whole. Those who do not put up a strong protest against this uncivilized innovation today, are in fact ratifying and approving the exit of economy from the good things of community life. And so it is very sad to see how this "turning point" made the civil and economic culture of our engineers and officials fall down with it.

Statistics, a noble art of living a good social life, has always had a very rich humanist tradition in Italy because it was considered an integral part of civilization, to use the expression of one of the founders of modern statistics, the Milanese Melchiorre Gioia. Therefore, it is to be hoped strongly that the ISTAT (the Italian National Institute for Statistics) is going to take action in promoting protest and action at the European level, relying on its roots and history as a point of departure. Statistics is the mirror of the culture of a country because we measure something we already know and want to "see", doing this on the basis of civilization and an idea of the common good. He who today wants to introduce this change in the GDP is saying that in terms of nature there is no difference any more between an entrepreneur who produces and pays taxes and the mafioso entrepreneur, between those who hire workforce and those who make people work illegally, between those who respect the law and those who deny it. Actually, this news denies centuries of tradition and humanist statistics and offends those who work and live within the law. This way we continue to humiliate honesty and virtue, and to serve the evil and the dishonest, giving them even civil and economic dignity. Till when and how far do we want to go in this direction?

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