Why GDP Is Useless and Deceptive: There Was No Recovery

Econophile's picture

This article originally appeared in The Daily Capitalist.

We have not recovered from the Great Recession and thus our current economic stagnation is less a new event than a continuation of the original collapse. The basis for the so-called "recovery" was a rise in GDP, that measure of what we have spent in the economy. It's a fairly useless bit of data.

As we all know, GDP measures private Consumption, plus gross private Investment, plus Government spending, plus eXports minus iMports. It is a simple formula:


According to Ludwig von Mises:

It is possible to determine in terms of money prices the sum of the income or the wealth of a number of people. But it is nonsensical to reckon national income or national wealth. As soon as we embark upon considerations foreign to the reasoning of a man operating within the pale of a market society, we are no longer helped by monetary calculation methods. The attempts to determine in money the wealth of a nation or of the whole of mankind are as childish as the mystic efforts to solve the riddles of the universe by worrying about the dimensions of the pyramid of Cheops.


If a business calculation values a supply of potatoes at $100, the idea is that it will be possible to sell it or to replace it against this sum. If a whole entrepreneurial unit is estimated $1,000,000, it means that one expects to sell it for this amount. But what is the meaning of the items in a statement of a nation's total wealth? What is the meaning of the computation's final result? What must be entered into it and what is to be left outside? Is it correct or not to enclose the "value" of the country's climate and the people's innate abilities and acquired skill? The businessman can convert his property into money, but a nation cannot.

Human Action, 4th ed., p. 217.

At best GDP is a defective measure of a nation's economic productivity. It isn't as if the "economy" is a thing that produces stuff. Nations don't produce anything, people do. I don't know any business owner who uses GDP to tell him anything about his business. (I'm not talking about you traders.) Let's face it, one can't get any real important information by averaging the prices of Diet Coke and memory chips.

What does this mean:

Not much, yet that is what the GDP calculation does.

Let me give you another example of the problem in trying to measure economic growth. If GDP measures spending then, does the introduction of more fiat money into the economy represent organic economic growth or is it just a measure of the influx of new dollars. If we all wake up the next morning and find that our money has magically doubled and we go on a spending spree, does 2X spending mean that GDP has increased 100%? I think we know the answer to that. That is why economists and statisticians use deflaters to discount the impact of monetary inflation on prices. [1] As Rick Davis of Consumer Metrics Institute points out, the inflation rate Bureau of Economic Analysis uses for the deflater is behind the curve and if revised upward to reflect the current CPI-U, it would put GDP at a 0.73% annualized rate.

Even if you believe that you can measure "the economy" why does government spending get as much credit as private spending and investment? Talking about a deflater, it's like comparing FedEx with the USPS in terms of efficiency and productivity. One could effectively argue that much of what the government spends is wasteful since they produce nothing. Yet, an important part of GDP spending measures.

That is why GDP doesn't yield any useful information.

I don't wish to get into the entire Austrian theory methodology (methodological individualism, as Mises put it), but it is an important concept in order to understand where I am going with this article.

The concept of GDP was developed during the New Deal by economist Simon Kuznets, a pioneer in econometrics. The New Dealers liked the concept because, as advocates of central economic planning, they believed they could control the economy and needed something to measure the efficacy of their meddling.  Austrian theory economics rejects the notion of  "national accounts" and the government's ability to "manage" the economy. This argument goes back almost 200 years, but let's say that history has not been very kind to economic meddlers. Especially to Keynesians.

What it all comes down to is the Keynesian belief that a lack of spending is what ails the economy, and conversely, spending, any spending, is good for the economy. If we consumers aren't spending enough, according to this idea, it is the duty of the government to spend in our stead. And if the government doesn't have the money, it is OK to borrow and spend.

Economic growth doesn't start with spending: it starts with saving and production and ends with spending. And that is why we should not rely on GDP to measure the health of the economy.

If spending were the key to economic growth, then, after running Federal deficits of more than $4.8 trillion since 2008, why haven't we recovered? According to Keynesian theory, at least as defined by Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong, Ben Bernanke, Larry Summers, and Tim Geithner, it should have worked. Of course Krugman would say that we haven't spent enough, but he always says that when evidence shows that it doesn't work.

So when the conventional wisdom says that the economy recovered in June 2009, it didn't. There are a number of other ways to measure this, and the dollar volume of industrial production and unemployment are two ways.

Here is an unemployment chart comparing various recessions:

courtesy Calculatedriskblog.com

Courtesy Calculated Risk

This chart shows that since the official NBER dating for the beginning of the recession, December, 2007, to the present, we have 41 months of high unemployment. Compared to past recessions we can see this event is far more serious. We are at 9.1% unemployment now, a rate that is far higher and far longer than in the past.

Another measure to look at it is industrial production:


The dollar measures of industrial output, especially the private ones (such as the ISM and NFIB business surveys), reveals that it is stagnating which doesn't give you a warm fuzzy feeling about the "recovery." While we have the same problem in measuring industrial production that we do in measuring GDP, it does measure a specific sector of the economy, (some) manufacturing, which is a capital intensive business, and is a fair proxy for capital investment.

Industrial production and unemployment measures are real indicators of economic health. So how can we have a recovery when unemployment is still very high and industrial production is falling?

The same factors that caused the so-called 2007-2009 recession still exist. Thus, papering over the problems with fiat money and stimulus spending just gave the appearance of economic growth but it wasn't real. That is why we have economic stagnation: the problems were still there when the money stopped.

Stimulus spending and fiat monetary expansion don't create organic economic activities. That is, once the federal stimulus spending stops or the money "printing" stops, the economic activity they supported stops. Whereas in the private sector, assuming a business is doing something right, customers will come back and the business continues, jobs are created, and profits are made.

The lesson to take away from this is that you can't trust GDP numbers to tell you anything important about the quality of the economy. It is a fiction created by economists who believe that the formulas of econometrics is a valid way to understand our behavior. It is even worse than that because they use such data to further meddle with the economy by targeting interest rates, to set money supply goals, to formulate fiscal policy, and to pass laws they think will make the economy grow.

What they miss are the real causes of economic prosperity.

In order to make the economy grow again we need to liquidate the projects that were built on fiat money during the boom years. We need to liquidate the debt attached to these malinvested projects. It's called 'bite the bullet and take the pain.' We need to build up new capital through savings so that we can invest in new productive enterprises and create jobs that aren't built on money steroids.

This is what people (the economy) do when they aren't being manipulated by government actions.

If you wish to place blame then start with the Fed and your federal government.  High unemployment and stagnation are painful to real people, not the "nation" yet it is government policies that prolong the problems. That is a cruel thing to do to our fellow Americans.

If you made economic decisions on the back of these GDP reports, that would be a mistake. More often than not, these numbers are false flags of growth. You may have bought a home based on a tax credit last year only to find that your new home is worth less than what you paid. You may have been an employer who hired new staff members based on tax credits only to find that demand has not materialized. You may have bought commercial real estate thinking the economy had turned around, but you will find your turnaround period will be far longer than you thought. You may have bought financial assets such as stocks based on a market that was inflated by QE money, and as money growth slows down the markets will suffer.

Caveat GDP.


Footnote 1. Here is a thought. If Dr. Bernanke thinks that a little price inflation is good for the economy, then why would he or any economist believe in using a deflater for any data. If inflation "works," as they believe, isn't such "growth" always real and thus doesn't need adjustment? Turning that argument around, if they don't believe price inflation is good for calculating GDP because it isn't "real" why would they believe it is good for the economy?

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blindman's picture

voodoo ,
i'll say no more

Zero Govt's picture

Good piece Econophile

GDP includes consumptive spending, including Government spending. It is as you and the likes of Peter Schiff say, a useless measure of pretty much anything

The true measure of the health of an economy is wealth creation, private company profits and as you astutely mention, savings.

Once you have a measure of wealth you could then see how much it requires to service the debt load and indeed the consumption (or destruction) of wealth, as all Govt spending is, in the economy. 

falak pema's picture

Interest rate increases ARE coming, when BB stops ruling the world!

KickIce's picture

Amazing the the Ponzi continues to move forward without an major increase in interest rates.  I guess when 1 nation does ala Germany it gets punished but when they all move in concert with the devaluation no one gets checked, especially true because currencies are measured against other fiats rathar than gold.

tony bonn's picture

as good an article as any.....gdp is a synthetic number with many implicit values....it is a bureaucrats's and tyrant's dream...it can be shaped and manipulated at will as john williams at shadow stats has testified.

the united states has been in an economic implosion for 3 decades....the pace of implosion has accelerated....we face nothing but disaster and calamity but larry the cable fart is riding his skittle shitting unicorn at warp speed to make pixie dust a substantive reality...

blindman's picture

is a mcdonald's hamburger part of industrial
production? how about fries?

cosmictrainwreck's picture

Don't know about "production" but sure as hell measured in GDP. Seriously, I heard a few years ago BLS or somebody wanted to count burger-making in "manufacturing". For all I (we) know, it's there....

Zero Govt's picture

Agriculture is one of mans major wealth streams so the base (agricultural) content of a Big Mac meal is productive but like all restaraunts you're paying through the nose for that base produce so the answer is 'both' ...part productive but mainly consumptive

dolly madison's picture

It is interesting to see how in the last 4 recessions the unemployment periods seem to be getting longer each time. 

cosmictrainwreck's picture

yup. that and the subsequent "structural" unemployment higher or definition of "full employment" lowered. all of these merely de facto and empirical, never official

zorba THE GREEK's picture

 Yeah, and pussy had hair around it.

ebworthen's picture

Nothing better than a bearded clam, especially fresh and clean.

zorba THE GREEK's picture

 Yeah, and pussy had hair around it.

ebworthen's picture

Ahh...when Women were Women and yet to be brainwashed by the Gillete/Shick/Shaving creme triumverate.

Goldtoothchimp09's picture

The worthlessness of GDP can be demonstrated by the fact that 40 years ago only one spouse had to work a middle class job to be able to afford a home and household.



BORT's picture

Don't forget that the average home was 1100 square feet, there were four channels on TV, One car per family, the only marble was at the museum, there were no cell phones or cable bills, If you had cancer you died, medical care was rudimentary, etc. etc.


Debt got us the rest, and we can no longer fund our standard of living.  Tell that to people today

NOTaREALmerican's picture

Re: Debt got us the rest, and we can no longer fund our standard of living.  Tell that to people today


Good point.   And, as long as the people of tomorrow can borrow like the people of today then everybody will be happy.   If not, the people of tomorrow are screwed.   

I know my generation got rich off the real-world socialism of Big-Mic, Big-Ag, Big-SocSec, Big-OldFartHealthCare, Big-House, Big-Ed, Big-AntiDrug, and Big-PoliceState.   Here's hoping the future generations can enjoy the same scams we did.   

Debt!   To infinity and beyond. 

Goldtoothchimp09's picture

i suspect people were happier or more content then too.

Stares straight ahead's picture

Nice post.

With an acknowledgement to Mises' idea that one can not comment on a nation's net worth, does that mean trying to interpret the solvency of a nation whose debt seems to exceed all reasonable estimates of such, is also non-sensical?

This paper I found on the net seems to imply that.  http://www.nber.org/chapters/c11688.pdf

Some help here from the ZH community?


LudwigVon's picture

I believe that there is no valid aggregation of economic activity. This does not mean that we do not use easy math to find whether or not a sovereign can cash flow the interest on outstanding debt or the simple deficit.

Stares straight ahead's picture





The paper I cited offered this formula as a way to determine ability to pay on debt: 

"A useful way of understanding the problems that arise in evaluating the


ability of the borrower to repay a loan is to look at the basic balance of trade identities. If D is total debt, AD repayment of debt, r the interest rate, and B the trade balance then in any period AD+rDB. (8)  If S is private savings, I domestic investment, T tax revenue and G government spending, another identity is that AD(SI)+(T--G). (9) Thus debt service is related both to the trade surplus and to private and government savings. If domestic product Y is independent of T, an unconstrained government could in theory set T = Y, and G = I = 0, in which case S = - rD and AD + rD = Y. Though eqs. (8) and (9) are nothing more than identities, they provide a framework for understanding possible sources  of problems in a country's meeting its foreign debt obligations."

But as far as I can tell, this is just an arguement to raise taxes.

BTW Krugman is cited in the paper too.





gwar5's picture

Interesting note: article was co-written by Stiglitz, an Obama advisor now at the IMF. Stiglitz, along with Summers, also privately said in 2009 the USA would have 10% unemployment for years. He's a NWO, and socialist truther type, with another Nobel prize made of plaster, like Krugman, Gore, and 'Bam.

Last couple of lines of the paper's abstract basically says it all, in so many words;  in international lending, a nation's net worth and their debt are meaningless if the international lenders can't collect. 

little OT/

The US army is pretty strong, which might explain Obama's election. Maybe he's just the Manchurian bank collector sent here to collect from inside the White House...... #Winning! 

All those meaningless wars make perfect sense to the bankers. Mel was right.  Also might explain why the US has the peculiar history of putting former Secretaries of Defense people, like Paul Wolfowitz, in charge of the World Bank -- just having them there is an implied threat.




michigan independant's picture

Wolves, sheep, sheepdogs, meanwhile a friend who was retrained years ago from nafta defined job loss monitors the ongoing assault on the economy. Namely the war on full time employees. The current push "assault" is being waged as we speak to get as many forced until collapse of there business unit to "seek" new part time status of the full time employees. Ruthless war on American workers for decades. No scruples but relentless drive to failure to enhance long term shareholder value.

Goldtoothchimp09's picture

shareholder value - more like executive pay value.  Shares aren't really much of anything.


It's amazing to me that in our screwed up society -- the stock market is supposed to pay for everything.  Pay for our retirements, pay for pension obligations.  Pretty much pay for everything long term.  Yet, common stock has very little real value.  Most stocks pay a pittance in dividends.  So what does stock ownership "get you".  Not any real voting rights.  Not much for dividend payments to compensate you for your ownership.  Basically, a stock certificate shows you've got some "honorary" ownership.  Doesn't matter how profitable a company is...common stockholders get nothing.  AAPL at $320 "gets you" the same as AAPL at $220, $120, or $20 per share.  A certificate showing honorary ownership.  Why anyone pays any real money for an honorary certificate stupifies.  It's just a cultural thing.  Invest in stocks, it's what people do.  I have a feeling it's going to end up just like investments in beanie babies.  People will ask "What was i thinking".  They weren't thinking.  Just herding a cultural trend.

ebworthen's picture

You either got junked for casting aspersions on stocks or the junk magnet of saying anything not glowing and sparkly about the new religion that is AAPL.

A majority of the population asked themselves "what was I thinking?" in late 2008 after 20-30 years of listening to the drones from the Wall Street hive (Financial Advisors).

Luckily (for the Wall Street hives and FA's) the FED and CONgress came to the rescue of everyone but their constituency. 

Hey, it only cost $14 Trillion and two generations of blood, sweat, tears, and trust (read: NO TRUST NOW), but they have the MIB to back them up so...what will we do?

NOTaREALmerican's picture

Re:  Invest in stocks, it's what people do.  I have a feeling it's going to end up just like investments in beanie babies.  People will ask "What was i thinking".  They weren't thinking.  Just herding a cultural trend.


Not to worry...  When we privatize SocSec then everybody will be able to get above average returns in the stock-market because everybody grew-up being above-average children of somebody.  American exceptionalism to the rescue! 

dvp's picture

My suspicion is the Federal Reserve has engaged in quantitative easing and other FINANCIAL stimuli because the US productive economy has eroded to such an extent, the only way in which GDP can "grow" is by expanding the financial sector.  Industrial production exhibits a great deal of economic "friction," investment costs, whereas financial "production" exhibits little economic "friction."  Indeed, after computer programs are designed, little labor input is necessary to generate financial exchanges, which can return profits at a rapid rate as numerous exchanges can occur in a day.  As for investment in productive production, overlooked by Econophile is the fractured socio/political environment in the U.S.  Being so, little public and political support can be expected for any investment program.  Thus, it is not so much as the "pain" to be expected in the interim of an investment program, it is the practical impossibility of implementing such a program.

Escapeclaws's picture

The "fatten the parasite" school of economic thought.

ebworthen's picture

Yes, so many of our best and brightest aspire to jigger markets or write apps.

bigmikeO's picture

Seems pretty straightforward to me:

1.5 trillion deficit spending per year vs. $284 billion GDP growth (14.2 trillion x .02 = $284 billion)

Means that the USA spent $5 for every $1 returned.

Isn't that a good investment?

bill40's picture

Fine GDP is a lousey measure. Your assumption that government spending is bad is also flawed. Keynes and Hayak are dead find a new hero who thinks of today.

LudwigVon's picture

thinks of today.


Yuh, truth, TODAY, is good. Mises.org

Zero Govt's picture

Bill40  -  all Govt spending is the consumption (destruction) of (other peoples) wealth. Period

nmewn's picture

"Your assumption that government spending is bad is also flawed."

Where does government pocket change come from?

Mr. E's picture

"Austrian theory economics rejects the notion of  "national accounts" "


As far as I can tell, Austian economics is anti-scientific, and its most hardcore supporters are proud of that fact.  


Econophile's picture

Not true. Science is good. Fake science, i.e., econometrics, is bad. It's just another way for the PTB to rule the masses through central planning. If you really wish to understand the Austrian theory on this, please see Hayek's Nobel lecture: http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economics/laureates/1974/hayek-lecture.html

Escapeclaws's picture

How can you say that economics is not scientific? The following example of the rigorous economic reasoning is pulled from Bruce Krasting's latest post (no criticism of Bruce--he was arguing a different point, but I found this a fascinating illustration of how economics is "applied" in practice):

"Republicans have drawn a line in the sand on the debt limit with their position of “No New Taxes”. The Democrats have said pretty much the opposite with, “No spending cuts”.

Neither side appears to be giving an inch. There is no common ground. Yet, to go to August 2 without a resolution is just a dumb move. Both sides of this big debate know that the next presidential election is riding on the outcome. If the US is to default; one side or the other will shoulder the blame. The “side” that gets the blame will lose the election. And both sides understand this. So where’s the compromise?

The solution is inflation. The government has got to get out of its inflation indexed obligations. You don’t have to raise tax brackets to raise revenues or cut expenses. You can mess with inflation adjustments to achieve these ends. Both sides can appear to win if this is accomplished. "

This is exactly how highly trained physicists come to their conclusions in analyzing data from their sophisticated experiments.

ebworthen's picture

Keynesian economics - you can spend as much as you feel you can spend, and if that doesn't work bludgeon a frugal taxpayer over the head for more taxes to pay for your fantasy.

Austrian economics - spend only what you make, and if you spend more you need to make more or spend less, and if you do neither you will be taken to the wood shed.

hound dog vigilante's picture

austrian econ. can certainly claim more scientific credibility than any professed mainstream school of economics.


economics is a "social" science at best.  at least austrians are honest about it.


foofoojin's picture

in America there is no such thing as a A.S. or B.S. in Economics. It is not a science here either.

narnia's picture

the worthlessness of the GDP statistic can be demonstrated very easily:

the allocation of $1 billion in funds by a US politican to build a bomb to ship to ship ti Korea to deter an economically crippled North Korea is deemed to have the same economic benefit as 10,000 farmers grossing $100,000 each selling food at a local farmers market.

nmewn's picture

"the worthlessness of the GDP statistic can be demonstrated very easily"

Or, alternately, simply, the worthlessness of including 30% of Gross Domestic Product that is counted twice...once when it comes into being formally, then yet again after its confiscation and reallocation via government transfer payments.

You can do amazing things with a ledger and a criminal mind ;-)

narnia's picture

transfer payments are not double counted, actually.

nmewn's picture

Thanks for the reply and sorry for the late response...someone has to work ;-)

Actually they are currently, because government expenditures on salaries are counted as a contributive number, when in fact it should be treated as a negative...and certainly not counted twice.

The GDP was adopted as a gauge of national prosperity during the Keynesian revolution...which should be as deep in the weeds as we need to go...LOL. 

Mr.Kuznets, who is widely recognized for inventing what we call the GDP model in his own words;

"the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measure of national income as defined by the GDP."

ebworthen's picture

I think what he means is that once the transfer payments are spent, they affect the GDP - and Food Stamps and Welfare is not money being spent by people who have jobs producing something other than welps - but I could be wrong.

IQ 145's picture

 Very nice post. basic, but can't be presented too often; GDP is just another propaganda effort.

DutchZeroPrinter's picture

If the amount of money in a country would be a constant and production increases, prices will tend to fall.


If the amount of money in a country would be a constant and production decreases, prices will tend to rise.

GDP shouldn't change very much. GDP represents inflation.


Corn1945's picture

This was obvious to anyone paying attention quite a while ago. The government is borrowing and spending 12% of GDP. Subtract the 12% out plus the compounding effects for every year you did it. Run the numbers and tell me what the real GDP number is.

Then for more fun, use the calculated GDP number and find the true debt/GDP ratio!

Escapeclaws's picture

Perhaps there's an analogy with the following video, if we assume that the good Dr. Bernanke has diagnosed the economy to be suffering from "liquidity disease". Watch the following funny video on "skidmark disease" and I think you'll get the point.


Michael's picture

I wonder how GDP valued in ounces Gold has faired over the years. A chart would be nice.