When You're Looking For Growth, What Should Count?

by Rt Revd Peter Selby

Posted: 2 May 2013

I wonder if it was wrong of me to pull up some weeds this morning. I didn't need to: I could have rung someone advertising their services as a gardener, and paid them to pull up the weeds. If I'd done that then between us the gardener and I would have contributed to the economic growth which is eluding our politicians. As it is, I didn't. The prospective gardener with his card in the local shop window didn't earn what I would have paid him and the national economic cake didn't expand at all. 

The strange thing is, it didn't make much difference to the state of the garden: the weed free patch wouldn't have been any freer of weeds. It's just that the actual output isn't what counts; only money counts. I know, of course, that if I don't hire a gardener I can spend the money in some other way that contributes to the GDP - or keep it in the bank where perhaps the bank will lend it to someone who will invest it. But then the gardener if I paid him to pull up the weeds might spend it on something else - so that it makes yet a further contribution to the GDP. It's money moving around that counts, and if I don't pay a gardener that bit of money doesn't move around.

That's behind the bonus culture, of course. Here are people doing things that actually count, and so they should be rewarded in a way that counts - money.

If good outcomes - a weed-free garden - don't count, there's also the fact that some bad outcomes do count. You buy fuel for the car; you drive the car; you emit exhaust fumes; you increase the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But the fuel, the maintenance of the roads, the wages of the mechanics who service the car - these all count. What is amazing is that the measures that then have to be taken to combat the climate change to which you have contributed - they count as well. The fun of driving and the disastrous effects of climate change both count!

All of which raises the question, what is the P in the GDP? And the answer is that it's only money value that counts as part of the product. If we're searching for growth we really need to stop people doing DIY, stop the people who tend allotments and therefore buy less from the local greengrocer, stop people making Christmas presents instead of buying them; stop people, in short, doing anything that somebody might pay someone else to do. 

I don't know anyone who thinks the world would be a better place if we stopped people doing all those worthy things - contributing to the product of a better, healthier, more wholesome world. But even if we don't think a world in which everybody is paid for anything worthwhile would be a better place we somehow don't seem to have the means to count things more sensibly.

St Paul's Institute is in the middle of its series on The City and the Common Good. The difficult part of that is that we seem to be dominated by the bits of the common good that can be measured: money, jobs, reducing the deficit. It seems that it's the things we can count that are the things that do count. And when GDP numbers go up that's good; down, that's bad.

Now comes the hard bit. It wasn't actually the weeds in the garden that provoked this reflection, but something recently reported on that is actually far more serious. It was recently reported that despite the legislation prescribing equal pay for women and men doing the same or equivalent jobs it has remained stubbornly the case women still receive considerably less in the workplace than men. It was reflecting on that that made me think about what it is that counts - and what it is that doesn't count. The reality is that that most of the things that get done for money are done by men, and the things that women do they often do for no money at all; they spend a lot of time doing things that don't count towards the GDP.

More than men, by far, they bring up children; they care for elderly relatives; they are the backbone of most churches in the work they do for no money. Nobody is going to admit to believing that any of those things are unimportant - but nobody has found a way to count our GDP that takes these hugely important activities into account. And insist as much as you like that women should be paid the same as men for equivalent work, the jobs that women do for money are in competition for their time and attention with jobs - the mothering, the volunteering and so forth - that they would be doing for nothing.

Some day we're going to need an economic system that stops counting and starts attending. Once we do that we'll also stop pretending that we value 'women's work' and actually start doing so.

About this author

The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby was President of the National Council for Independent Monitoring Boards from 2008 until 2013 and the former Bishop of Worcester. He is currently part of the Interim Directing team for St Paul's Institute.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.