GDP and Economic Well-Being

Review section 3 of the Macroeconomics chapter assigned in 2.1. Learn about the shortcomings of GDP as a measure of well-being. As we will see, GDP is an imperfect measure of happiness as it focuses exclusively on the material well-being of a country's citizens. Factors such as the quality of healthcare, education, and the environment, are not explicitly covered by GDP.



  1. Discuss and give examples of measurement and conceptual problems in using real GDP as a measure of economic performance and of economic well-being.
  2. Explain the use of per capita real GNP or GDP to compare economic performance across countries and discuss its limitations.

GDP is the measure most often used to assess the economic well-being of a country. Besides measuring the pulse of a country, it is the figure used to compare living standards in different countries.

Of course, to use GDP as an indicator of overall economic performance, we must convert nominal GDP to real GDP, since nominal values can rise or fall simply as a result of changes in the price level. For example, the movie Avatar, released in 2009, brought in $761 million - the highest amount to date in gross box office receipts, while Gone with the Wind, released in 1939, earned only $199 million and ranks 117th in terms of nominal receipts. But does that mean that Avatar actually did better than Gone with the Wind? After all, the average price of a movie ticket in 1939 was about 25 cents. At the time of Avatar, the average ticket price was about $7.50. A better way to compare these two movies in terms of popularity is to control for the price of movie tickets - the same strategy that economists use with real GDP in order to determine whether output is rising or falling. Adjusting the nominal box-office receipts using 2012 movie prices to obtain real revenue reveals that in real terms Gone with the Wind continues to be the top real grosser of all time with real box-office receipts of about $1.6 billion. Avatar's real box-office receipts amounted to a mere $776 million. As illustrated by this example on revenues from popular movies, we might draw erroneous conclusions about performance if we base them on nominal values instead of on real values. In contrast, real GDP, despite the problems with price indexes that were explained in another chapter, provides a reasonable measure of the total output of an economy, and changes in real GDP provide an indication of the direction of movement in total output.

We begin this section by noting some of the drawbacks of using real GDP as a measure of the economic welfare of a country. Despite these shortcomings, we will see that it probably remains our best single indicator of macroeconomic performance.

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