Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is a statistic to which much importance is attached by the high priests of capitalism, our celebrated economic ‘experts’ and central bankers with their panels of expert advisers. Estimates of the growth or decline in GDP in the previous quarter are eagerly awaited, and forecasts for the coming year and beyond are given much credence and lead to sighs of relief when, as with the recent forecast for UK GDP from Moody, they predict growth of 1.2% for 2017, only slightly lower than the 1.5% forecast for 2016. The collective group-think is that, while the UK economy is slowing down, the EU Referendum result will not, as previously feared, trigger a recession. This confidence is buttressed by forecasts of GDP growth in the rest of the world, the recent fall in the value of the pound and the Bank of England’s further resort to ‘quantitative easing’ – the strategy whereby the government, in effect, prints money and lends it to the commercial banks without any strings attached.
Capitalist economies are, of course, always driven by such vague sentiments, reinforced by the wisdom of ‘experts’ who actually have little understanding of how their economies really work or when the next crisis will hit. Moody’s forecast assumes that another financial crash of the kind experienced in 2007 and 2008 won’t occur. Considerations such as the instability of the Euro, the house price bubble and bankers’ continued addiction to casino and arbitrage activity instead of investment in productive enterprises are simply ignored. Also disregarded, perhaps because it is simply too painful for the ‘experts’ to contemplate, is the much greater difficulty governments and central banks will encounter if a crisis in the banking and finance sector occurs sooner rather than later. Next time it won’t be so easy to lay the burden on ordinary workers and their families. That trick can only be played when memories have faded.
The tendency for capital to over-accumulate and resort to speculative activity as the rate of profit declines makes another economic crisis inescapable. It may not arise in 2017, but it’s coming.
Finally, a brief note on GDP. GDP is arrived at by summing the value added from separate commodity generating activities across the economy, thereby avoiding double counting the production of commodities used in subsequent production. It thus represents the income available to a nation to pay wages, capital costs, taxes and (most important to capitalists) profits. It is a useful measure of the scale of an economy, but it has several shortcomings. In particular:
- it fails to measure inputs and outputs at their true economic cost. In particular, no allowance is made for the damage to the environment caused, for example, by CO2 emissions;
- there is no allowance for depreciation of plant and machinery. If this were done GDP would be a good first order estimate of surplus value – a key measure in Marxist economics which bourgeois economists prefer to ignore – assuming that is they understand what it is;
- GDP, even after deduction of depreciation, requires a deflator before it can be used as an efficiency measure. The available deflators such as hours worked have limitations; and
- the statistic tells us nothing about how GDP is shared between capitalists and workers.
For those interested in these more technical matters, I will post a short piece shortly on the Communist University in South London website.