By the curious standard of the GDP, “the nation’s economic hero” is a terminal cancer patient who is going through a costly divorce. The happiest event is an earthquake or a hurricane. The most desirable habitat is a multibillion-dollar Superfund site. All these add to the GDP, because they cause money to change hands. It is as if a business kept a balance sheet by merely adding up all “transactions,” without distinguishing between income and expenses, or between assets and liabilities.
The strange fact that jumps out from Bennett’s grim inventory of crime, divorce, mass-media addiction, and the rest is that much of it actually adds to the GDP. Growth can be social decline by another name. Divorce, for example, adds a small fortune in lawyers’ bills, the need for second households, transportation and counseling for kids, and so on. Divorce lawyers alone take in probably several billion dollars a year, and possibly a good deal more. Divorce also provides a major boost for the real-estate industry. “Unfortunately, divorce is a big part of our business. It means one [home] to sell and sometimes two to buy,”a realtor in suburban Chicago told the Chicago Tribune. Similarly, crime has given rise to a burgeoning crime-prevention and security industry with revenues of more than $65 billion a year. The car-locking device called The Club adds some $100 million a year to the GDP all by itself, without counting knock-offs. Even a gruesome event like the Oklahoma City bombing becomes an economic uptick by the strange reckonings of the GDP. “Analysts expect the share prices [of firms making anti-crime equipment] to gain during the next several months,” The Wall Street Journal reported a short time after the bombing, “as safety concerns translate into more contracts.” by: Clifford Cobb, a policy analyst, is the author of Responsive Schools, Renewed Communities (1992). Ted Halstead is the founder and executive director of Redefining Progress, a nonprofit public-policy organization in San Francisco. Jonathan Rowe has been an editor at The Washington Monthly and a staff writer for The Christian Science Monitor.
That is the economy for us. Next time you read in the paper (or see a graph) how the GDP has increased, don’t get too enthusiastic too quickly. Consider why it increased. Is it an “asset” or a “liability”? National Debt is seen, in part, in relationship to GDP. If GDP goes up, typically National Debt is allowed to move up as well.