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The Power of a Single Number: A Political History of GDP

Philipp H. Lepenies

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Columbia University Press
15 April 2016
Central government policies; Business & Economics; Political economy; Economic history; Industrial relations
Since it was first widely used in the mid-twentieth century, GDP has become the most powerful statistical indicator of our time. Practically all governments adhere to the idea that GDP growth is a primary political target. And while criticism of this hegemonic measure has grown over the past decade, neither its champions nor its detractors deny its central importance in our political culture.

In The Power of a Single Number, Philipp Lepenies tells the lively, unpredictable history of GDP's political acceptance - and eventual dominance. From Renaissance England to 1960s America, Lepenies tracks the emergence of GDP and its precursors, focusing on the individuals central to this development. He considers William Petty's failed attempt to popularize national income measures in the seventeenth century and then looks at the statistical work of Colin Clark in the early 1900s. An ingenious lone wolf, Clark remained something of an outsider in the economic community, but his ideas were extended by John Maynard Keynes and advanced a more focused study of national income. This work was furthered by Simon Kuznets, who emphasized GDP's ties to social well-being and set the stage for its future ascent. GDP finally achieved its singular status during World War II, assuming the importance it retains today.

Lepenies's absorbing account helps us see this common measure anew and contextualizes current debates over the wisdom of the number's monolithic rule.
By:   Philipp H. Lepenies
Imprint:   Columbia University Press
Country of Publication:   United States
Dimensions:   Height: 210mm,  Width: 140mm,  Spine: 23mm
Weight:   368g
ISBN:   9780231175104
ISBN 10:   0231175108
Publication Date:   15 April 2016
Audience:   College/higher education ,  Further / Higher Education
Format:   Hardback
Publisher's Status:   Unspecified

Reviews for The Power of a Single Number: A Political History of GDP

It is an amazing but little-remarked fact that governments all over the world take as their top economic objective the increase of one number: gross domestic product. Philipp Lepenies traces how this strange unanimity came to be, taking the reader on a colorful journey through England, Germany, and the United States and bringing things into the present with an account of current debates about replacing or supplementing GDP with other indicators of welfare. The Power of a Single Number is beautifully written and easily accessible to anyone who wants to know more about what lies behind the world's most powerful number. -- Robert H. Wade, London School of Economics. Leontief Prize winner, 2008. A great book on understanding why GDP was put at the center of the political and economic framework that has driven the world over the past sixty years and why this choice led to the underestimating of other issues, such as socioeconomic inequalities and environmental degradation. The Power of a Single Number also provides insights on how to build a 'post GDP' era, especially in the context of a possible future 'secular stagnation.' -- Enrico Giovannini, University of Rome By asking how GDP became the most influential economic statistic of our time, Lepenies provides a fascinating new perspective on the history of empirical economics. Economists play important roles in his account, but ultimately it was politics and the priorities of wartime that drove the demand for GDP measurement. While many economists today are well aware of its limitations, political inertia keeps GDP on its throne. -- Martin Ravallion, Georgetown University This little book about a big number will impress readers who might never have previously considered the statistics underlying our lives. Publishers Weekly Lepenies's absorbing account helps us understand the personalities and popular events that propelled GDP to dominance, clarifying current debates over the wisdom of the number's rule. 800-CEO-READ


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