GDP and social welfare in the long run

By Paul Walker 08/04/2015

A few weeks ago over at the Offsetting Behaviour blog Eric Crampton was talking about The Case for Economic Growth, a new report put out by the New Zealand Initiative. An obvious question to ask about growth is, What’s so great about it? Why should we care if the economy grows or not? After all GDP, and thus growth in GDP, is not identical to social well-being or growth in social well-being. The answer many economists would give, and the New Initiative report gives, is that growth of GDP over time has a positive correlation with human well-being broadly understood.

It turns out that Offsetting Behaviour isn’t the only blog where the advantages of growth are being thought about. At the Conversable Economist blog Timothy Taylor takes a look at an OECD report from last year which asks, How Was Life? Global Well-Being Since 1820, edited by Jan Luiten van Zanden, Joerg Baten, Marco Mira d’Ercole, Auke Rijpma, Conal Smith and Marcel Timmer.

Taylor writes,

So how have other dimensions of human well-being been correlated with this rise in per capita GDP, both over time and across countries? The short answer is that there is a strong positive correlation between per capita GDP and and indicators of education and health status. There is a weaker but still positive correlation between higher per capita GDP and participatory political institutions. There is no clear-cut correlation between per capita GDP and personal security. The relationship between per capita GDP and the environment (viewed as a whole) seems to be an inverted U-shape: that is, growth of per capita GDP is first associated with higher environmental damage, but at some point it seems to be associated with lower damage. The relationship between per capita and income inequality seems to follow a regular U-shape: that is, growth of per capita GDP is first associated with greater within-country income equality up to about the 1970s, but since then is associated with greater inequality. Here are some details.

1) Education

Gains in education have a strong positive correlation with per capita GDP over time and across countries, probably a part of a virtuous circle: that is, a more educated workforce helps economic growth, and an economy with higher per capita income can afford to spend more on education.


2) Health status over the long-term can be proxied by measures like life expectancy and height. It seems clear that higher per capita GDP is associated with gains in both, although there is some evidence that at the highest levels of GDP, higher incomes are not associated with larger health gains. The report says:

“Life expectancy at birth was about 33 years in Western Europe around 1830, 40 years in 1880, and almost doubled in the period after, with the largest improvements occurring in first half of the 20th century. In the rest of the world, life expectancies started to increase from much lower levels, rising in particular after 1945. Worldwide life expectancy increased from less than 30 years in 1880 to almost 70 in 2000. There is strong evidence of a shift in the relationship between health status and GDP per capita over the past two centuries. Life expectancy improved around the world even when GDP per capita stagnated, due to advances in knowledge and the diffusion of health care technologies.”


3) Personal security over the long-run can be approximated by using data on homicide rates and on war. The report summarizes the evidence on per capita GDP and homicide rates like this: “Western Europe was already quite peaceful from the 19th century onwards, but homicide rates in the United States have been high by comparison. Large parts of Latin America and Africa are also violent crime “hotspots”, and so is the former Soviet Union (especially since the fall of communism), while large parts of Asia show low homicide rates. Homicide rates are in general negatively correlated with GDP per capita – the richer a country, the lower the level, but there are important exceptions.”


4) The overall pattern of political institutions over time is toward greater participation, but the path has often been a bumpy one. […] an Index of Democracy, where the measure of competition is based on what share of the vote is received by the winning party (when a winning party receives nearly all the votes, competition is low) and a measure of participation based on the share of the adult population that votes. On a worldwide basis, both are rising since 1820. But the rise is bumpy and spiky at times.


5) Environmental quality is proxied by three measures in this report: biodiversity, and emissions of sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide. The summary reads: “A negative correlation with GDP per capita is clearly in place when looking at quality of the environment. Biodiversity declined in all regions and worldwide as land use changed dramatically. Per capita emissions of CO2 increased after the industrial revolution in Western Europe and its Offshoots, accelerating in the mid-20th century as other regions increased their GDP, and is still increasing globally. Per capita emission of SO2 (a local pollutant) also increased alongside higher industrial production, but were curbed since the 1970s thanks to the advent of cleaner technologies.”


A key question is whether countries will tend to find ways to reduce environmental damage as their per capita GDP rises–as appears to be happening with SO2. Another way of making the point is that the ways in which economic growth affects the environment are strongly affected by public policy choices. As the report notes:

To some extent SO2 emissions follow an environmental Kuznets curve, with declining emissions beyond a certain level of GDP per capita, and in recent periods biodiversity is also less directly (negatively) related to real income levels. Overall, there is still a rather strong negative link between environmental quality (as measured by these indicators) and GDP per capita, but this link has been weakening in recent years (since the 1970s), probably as a result of successful policies to lower emissions (SO2 probably being the best example).


6) Inequality of incomes is hard to summarize, in part because we live in a time when there is growing inequality of incomes within countries at the same time that global inequality of incomes is falling (with the rise of incomes in countries like China and India).


For the global distribution of income, the curves […] are gradually moving out to the right as economic growth raises the average world income. The area under the curves is also getting larger, which captures the fact that world population has dramatically expanded. It’s interesting to notice that in 1970 and 1980, the global distribution of income had two humps, one at a lower income level and one at a higher income level. By 2000, the world is back to a one-hump income distribution.

From a national and regional level, the patterns show look different: “Long-term trends in income inequality, as measured by the distribution of pre-tax household income across individuals, followed a U-shape in most Western European countries and Western Offshoots. It declined between the end of the 19th century until about 1970, followed by a rise. In Eastern Europe, communism resulted in strong declines in income inequality, followed by a sharp increase after its disintegration in the 1980s. In other parts of the world (China in particular) income inequality has been on the rise recently. The global income distribution, across all citizens of the world, was uni-modal in the 19th century, but became increasingly bi-modal between 1910 and 1970 and suddenly reverted to a uni-modal distribution between 1980 and 2000.”

What then is the take home measure from this? For a start it is clear that GDP is not the same thing as real social welfare. However, it tends to be true that countries with a higher level of per capita GDP are better off on other dimensions of well-being, not just the consumption of goods and services, but also other factors like education, health, and even personal freedom.

Both the New Zealand Initiative report and the OECD report make the same basic point, growth is good.