Diane Coyle – GDP: A Brief But Affectionate History

Coyle, Diane (2014). GDP: A Brief But Affectionate History. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2014. ISBN: 9780691156798. Pagine 168. 11,54 €

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Di Diane Coyle avevo comprato nel 2007 un altro libro, A Soulful Science, di cui riferisco in un altro post.

Questo è un libro discontinuo ma comunque interessante, in un periodo in cui il dibattito sul PIL è più vivace che mai.

A parte una brevissima introduzione – che prende le mosse dalla crisi di credibilità della statistica ufficiale greca – il libro è articolato in 6 capitoli, ordinati in una prospettiva storica, dagli albori del calcolo economico nel XVIII secolo al futuro.

All’inizio ero abbastanza entusiasta, tanto da aver suggerito a un amico editore di prenderlo in considerazione per una traduzione italiana, nel caso in cui i diritti non se li fosse già accaparrati una major.

Conosco abbastanza bene la storia del PIL e della contabilità nazionale, per passione (eh sì, ci si può appassionare anche a questo!) e per motivi professionali, e – a parte qualche divergenza su singoli punti o su accentuazioni diverse che avrei dato a vicende o a dibattiti particolari (per esempio, è abbastanza evidente il punto di vista britannocentrico dell’autrice) – ho trovato la “narrazione” di Diane Coyle accurata e scorrevole al tempo stesso.

Quelli che mi hanno lasciato più perplesso sono i capitoli centrali, dove l’autrice mi sembra abbastanza schierata ideologicamente in campo anti-keynesiano e neoclassico sotto il profilo economico e thatcherian-reaganiano sotto quello politico. Il che è ovviamente lecito, ma (a mio parere) è inopportuno in un testo esplicitamente divulgativo, che dovrebbe avere come obiettivo principale quello di fare comprendere gli sviluppi della teoria e della pratica della contabilità nazionale, e non di dare giudizi sui movimenti studenteschi e sindacali degli anni Sessanta e Settanta, come fa in questi due passi, ad esempio:

It is not poverty and despair that cause revolutionary activity in modern times, but rather comfortable prosperity. Skipping school to hurl stones at the riot police and evade tear gas is a luxury indulged in only by young people who are not really worried about finding a job when they need one. Likewise, one can afford to experiment with drugs, free love, personal liberation, and self-discovery only in a prosperous economy. [p. 61]

[…] the left-right divide grew bitter in the 1970s. The liberation movements emerging from the individualism of the previous decade were increasingly angry, occasionally even violent. Revolutionary politics were fashionable—one of the best-selling posters of the era, adorning many student walls, was the iconic black and red image of Che Guevara. Academics dived down the long dead end of Marxist-inspired critical theory, only now fizzling out in university departments. Organized labor became far more militant. There were more and more strikes, even in the far less militant United States. In fifteen industrial countries other than the United States, the number of days per worker lost due to strikes was 1,641 in the 1960s, 2,586 in the 1970s, 1,632 in the 1980s, and a mere 658 in the 1990s. These helped bring about the Reagan and Thatcher victories, and the subsequent policy reaction, including tough restrictions on the right to strike. But that, again, uses hindsight. For a decade, it looked as though the capitalist system was the one that was broken. [p. 68]

Più avanti il libro si rimette in carreggiata e l’ultimo capitolo, quello sulla prospettive future del PIL, è una presentazione aggiornata e fedele dei problemi e del dibattito attuali.

* * *

Un errore e una curiosità.

Un brutto svarione a p. 41, dove l’autrice annovera la Spagna tra i paesi sconfitti nella II Guerra mondiale.

Bill Phillips, l’economista neozelandese padre della famigerata curva di Phillips, che postula una relazione inversa tra tasso di disoccupazione e tasso d’inflazione, è anche l’inventore del MONIAC, un modello idraulico del funzionamento del sistema economico. Ne esistono un prototipo (attualmente all’Università di Leeds) e una dozzina di copie. Qui sotto vedete quella della banca centrale neozelandese.

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Qualche altra citazione (per questo libro ho le pagine e vi do quelle):

[…] from the nineteenth century, people were starting to reconsider how to measure the economy precisely because it was starting to grow, thanks to the Industrial Revolution and the dawn of capitalism. [p. 12]

Even in those depressed times the report was a bestseller, at twenty cents a copy, and the first print run of forty-five hundred copies quickly sold out. [p. 13: si sta parlando del rapporto di Simon Kuznets]

[…] an evil necessary […] [p. 14: sempre Kuznets]

By 1950, it was in mass production and its price had fallen to four cents a dose, the same as one-sixteenth of a gallon of milk.3 It was not just that this flood of innovations existed but that so many people could afford them. As the economic historian David Landes observed, Nathan Meyer Rothschild, the richest man in the world of his time, died in 1836 for want of an antibiotic to cure an infection.
This is what GDP growth consists of. [p. 63: si sta parlando della penicillina]

(How real or durable that catch-up has been is an open question at the moment, in the aftermath of the financial crisis.) [p. 72: si sta parlando dei PIIGS]

Studies of businesses investing in computer and communications equipment in the United States in the 1990s and 2000s indicate that without restructuring the business, productivity gains are small. But those that do restructure experience very large improvements in productivity. [p. 82]

A better metric than the size of the economy might well be the variety of goods and services available. [p. 91: condivido questo punto di vista]

In principle, GDP avoids the need to distinguish productive from unproductive because it measures what people pay for, and their willingness to pay can be taken as an indicator of productive value (although of course there might be alternatives to money as a measure of value). [p. 104]

“This treatment, whereby commercial products are valued at market price, government services are valued at cost and unpaid household activities are simply ignored, is not a matter of principle but of practical convenience. It can be defended, therefore, only on practical grounds.” [p. 105: è una citazione di Richard Stone]

“[…] a single measure or unit of value.” [p. 110: secondo Michael Sandel il peccato originale del PIL; secondo me, il suo grande punto di forza] […]

Bhutan is one of the poorest and one of the more authoritarian countries in the world. [p. 112]

Simon Kuznets, working on measuring national income in the 1930s, wrote:
«It would be of great value to have national income estimates that would remove from the total the elements which, from the standpoint of a more enlightened social philosophy than that of an acquisitive society represent dis-service rather than service. Such estimates would subtract from the present national income totals all expenses on armament, most of the outlays on advertising, a great many of the expenses involved in financial and speculative activities, and what is perhaps most important, the outlays that have been made necessary in order to overcome difficulties that are, properly speaking, costs implicit in our economic civilization. All the gigantic outlays in our urban civilization, subways, expensive housing, etc., which in our usual estimates we include at the value of the net product they yield on the market, do not really represent net services to the individuals comprising the nation but are, from their viewpoint, an evil necessary in order to be able to make a living (i.e., they are largely business expenses rather than living expenses). Obviously the removal of such items from national income estimates, difficult as it would be, would make national income totals much better gauges of the volume of services produced, for comparison among years and among nations.» [p. 114: ben prima di Robert Kennedy e molto più lucido]

The economist Martin Weitzman proposed using Net National Product (NNP), which he showed was the yield generated by the economy’s stock of capital, and therefore indicated the maximum sustainable rate of consumption. If it is less than actual consumption, then society has been living beyond its means by using up capital. [p. 117]

To be poor is to have little choice available, and the increase in possibility is the most important aspect of escaping from poverty. On this view, economic development is a combination of increasing individual capacities or skills to be able to take advantage of opportunities, and increasing the range of opportunities and choices available. Economic development is an increase in freedom. One aspect of this is the variety of goods and services available in the economy, from the trivial to the profoundly important. [p. 123]

Price indexes do not, however, capture the large price declines when outsourcing occurs, so import prices have been greatly overstated and import volumes underrecorded. [p. 125]

Generally any task that can be measured by the metrics of productivity – output per hour – is a task we want automation to do. [p. 128: è una citazione di Kevin Kelly]

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