“The rising tide lifts all boats. » For decades, this phrase from John Fitzgerald Kennedy expressed the consensus around economic growth. In post-war France, unions and employers fought over everything except the pressing need to make the pie bigger.
It was in the 1970s, with the report of the Club of Rome (1972), titled “The limits to growth”, that this consensus began to be called into question and that the theme of degrowth appeared. But it was not until the first decade of this century that criticism asserted itself. In 2009, Tim Jackson’s book appeared in quick succession Prosperity without growth (De Boeck, 2017) and the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi report on the measurement of economic performance and social progress. The first called into question the objective of an indefinite growth of material production, the second the nature of the indicators by the yardstick of which to assess the success of an economy.
From a questioning, however legitimate it may be, an alternative does not necessarily arise. For several years now, statisticians have been working to define a more adequate measure of the value of economic activity. But despite their stubbornness, these efforts have not resulted in a satisfactory substitute for gross domestic product (GDP). Dashboards based on a multiplicity of indicators arouse little more than indifference, even when, as in France, they are the subject of a legislative definition. The human development index published by the United Nations has the advantage of illustrating in a striking way that shared prosperity and growth are not the same thing, but its definition is imbued with an inevitable arbitrariness.
Above all, these alternatives do not offer an accounting system capable of serving as a framework for sectoral measures or for accounting for businesses and households. The great weakness of GDP is to bear the trace of the historical context in which it was conceived, but its great strength is to be the keystone of a coherent system of economic accounting.
These subjects, which could appear without immediate stake, took on a new importance in the perspective of climate transition. In the absence of good performance measures, observed the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi report, decision makers are in effect “like pilots trying to maintain a course without having a reliable compass”. In concrete terms, GDP may be an adequate measure of production, but it certainly does not provide a good measure of well-being, and it cannot be taken as a guide in steering the transition, since it ignores the very notion of sustainability.
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