Yes, GDP is (nearly) all the things

Shipping containers piling up on the port of Savannah in September 2021 © New York Times / Redux / eyevine

Robert Kennedy was a minimum of eloquent in his sanctimony. “Gross national product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising,” he mentioned in 1968, however not the “beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages”. Napalm, prisons, tree-felling, violent tv and weapons, one in all which might function the instrument of his homicide three months later: these made their approach into the expansion knowledge. “That which makes life worthwhile” didn’t.

David Cameron in 2006 was drabber in speech however of the identical thoughts. “It’s time we admitted that there’s more to life than money,” mentioned the long run adviser to Greensill Capital, touting GWB — “general well-being” — because the nobler inheritor to GDP. Only a fog-headed Sloane would discuss like that, I believed. Nearly fifteen years later, a lot of furloughed and fiscally cushioned folks may very well be heard to surprise if Mother Earth was telling us to decelerate and relegate the act of financial manufacturing.

As with the dying of air journey (it’s nearing 2019 ranges) and the top of nightlife (you attempt getting a desk) that trope is heard much less and fewer now. And it lasted not a beat longer than it deserved to. 

The looming recession shall be painful. But it’s going to additionally drive a sure type of post-materialist humbug from well mannered discourse. Growth shall be tougher to dismiss as a bean counter’s tawdry obsession when there’s so little of the stuff to go spherical.

There are two issues with the road that GDP isn’t all the things. One is that no sentient being has ever claimed that it’s. The different is that GDP is very practically all the things. Immigrants versus nativists, cities versus provinces: the cultural fault strains that marble the physique politic of the western world had been there earlier than the crash of 2008. The distinction was that governments may veil them with money. I lived via consecutive UK elections wherein a lot greater spending was tabled with out a lot greater taxes. As the nation exterior London presses forward with its bid for middle-income standing, that civic peace shall be tougher to purchase. A slowing China would possibly uncover the identical. Proverbs 10:12 ought to have mentioned that progress, not love, covers a large number of sins. 

In the financial historical past course he teaches at LSE, an acquaintance, Dr Tim Leunig, exhibits that wealthy nations are higher at nearly all of the issues we care about than poor ones. This consists of issues as costless as feminine suffrage and never committing murder. Sweden would possibly condescend to America on some fronts, and Denmark to Britain, however that is an argument throughout the one per cent of countries. The maintenance of nationwide monuments prices cash. The writing of poetry is determined by leisure, which prices cash. The Kennedy-Cameron line (each wealthy youngsters, be aware) between progress and life’s greater callings shouldn’t be really easy to attract.

And nonetheless folks draw it. Because I received fortunate — no signs, no hospitalised relations or shut associates — what most haunted me concerning the pandemic was not the well being results. It was the pace with which individuals questioned if modernity was definitely worth the candle. To predict the decline of massed, fast-moving humanity is merely pessimistic. To actively will it’s getting on to be romantic and even reactionary. The city resurgence has killed off these pastoral goals (I discover myself turning into emotional in visitors jams now) however their attraction, even to colleagues, shall be tougher to neglect. 

It was at all times there, I suppose, in Nimbyism. It was there in a sure urge for food for the medieval in Twenty first-century leisure: Wolf HallGame of Thrones, the pre-industrial Britain of the in any other case well-judged Olympic opening ceremony 10 summers in the past. What the pandemic did was convey this nostalgia for a much less dynamic previous out of individuals and lend it a spurious credibility. That political house the place the inexperienced, the conservative and the leftist meet turned out to be crammed.

No doubt, a recession will focus minds. As public areas fray, and relationships come beneath pressure, and leisure turns into much less inexpensive, folks will rediscover the foundational position of progress to nearly all the things they cherish. The query is whether or not the hard-won lesson will survive the following complacent increase, the following oration in opposition to progress and its likeliest maker: the following monarch.

Email Janan at

Find out about our newest tales first — observe @ftweekend on Twitter