Can the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of a country be taken as an index of the welfare of the people of that country? If a person has more income he or she can buy more goods and services and his or her material well-being improves. So it may seem reasonable to treat his or her income level as his or her level of well-being.
GDP is the sum total of value of goods and services created within the geographical boundary of a country in a particular year. It gets distributed among the people as incomes (except for retained earnings). So we may be tempted to treat higher level of GDP of a country as an index of greater well-being of the people of that country (to account for price changes, we may take the value of real GDP instead of nominal GDP). But there are at least three reasons why this may not be correct.
1. Distribution of GDP – how uniform is it: If the GDP of the country is rising, the welfare may not rise as a consequence. This is because the rise in GDP may be concentrated in the hands of very few individuals or firms. For the rest, the income may in fact have fallen. In such a case the welfare of the entire country cannot be said to have increased.
For example, suppose in year 2009, an imaginary country had 100 individuals each earning Rs 10. Therefore the GDP of the country was Rs 1,000 (by income method). In 2010, let us suppose the same country had 90 individuals earning Rs 9 each, and the rest 10 individual earning Rs 20 each. Suppose there had been no change in the prices of goods and services between these two periods. The GDP of the country in the year 2010 is 90 × (Rs 9) + 10 × (Rs 20) = Rs 810 + Rs 200 = Rs 1,010.
Observe that compared to 2009, the GDP of the country in 2010 is higher by Rs10. But this has happened when 90 per cent of people of the country have seen a drop in their real income by 10 per cent (from Rs 10 to Rs 9), whereas only 10 per cent have benefited by a rise in their income by 100 per cent (from Rs 10 to Rs 20). 90 per cent of the people are worse off though the GDP of the country has gone up. If we relate welfare improvement in the country to the percentage of people who are better off, then surely GDP is not a good index.
2. Non-monetary exchanges: Many activities in an economy are not evaluated in monetary terms. For example, the domestic services women perform at home are not paid for. The exchanges which take place in the informal sector without the help of money are called barter exchanges. In barter exchanges goods (or services) are directly exchanged against each other. But since money is not being used here, these exchanges are not registered as part of economic activity.
In developing countries, where many remote regions are underdeveloped, these kinds of exchanges do take place, but they are generally not counted in the GDPs of these countries. This is a case of underestimation of GDP. Hence GDP calculated in the standard manner may not give us a clear indication of the productive activity and well-being of a country.
3. Externalities: Externalities refer to the benefits (or harms) a firm or an individual causes to another for which they are not paid (or penalised). Externalities do not have any market in which they can be bought and sold.
For example, let us suppose there is an oil refinery which refines crude petroleum and sells it in the market. The output of the refinery is the amount of oil it refines. We can estimate the value added of the refinery by deducting the value of intermediate goods used by the refinery (crude oil in this case) from the value of its output. The value added of the refinery will be counted as part of the GDP of the economy.
But in carrying out the production the refinery may also be polluting the nearby river. This may cause harm to the people who use the water of the river. Hence their utility will fall. Pollution may also kill fish or other organisms of the river on which fish survive. As a result the fishermen of the river may be losing their income and utility. Such harmful effects that the refinery is inflicting on others, for which it does not have to bear any cost, are called externalities. In this case, the GDP is not taking into account such negative externalities.
Therefore, if we take GDP as a measure of welfare of the economy we shall be overestimating the actual welfare. This was an example of negative externality. There can be cases of positive externalities as well. In such cases GDP will underestimate the actual welfare of the economy.