Should-Read: Robert Solow: Improving the measurement and understanding of economic inequality in the United States

Should-Read: Robert Solow: Improving the measurement and understanding of economic inequality in the United States: “There has long been interest in extending and improving the National Income and Product Accounts…

…The accounts, and the summary Gross Domestic Product number, were not initially intended as an indicator of welfare, but rather as a measure of economic activity—even misdirected activity such as the production of cigarettes. Even on that basis, there is room for improvement: Perhaps the most commonly suggested extension has been the explicit inclusion of environmental degradation and improvement, along with other instances of resource depletion. I would certainly be in favor. Nevertheless, I want to begin with a retrograde suggestion. Whatever is eventually done with NIPA and GDP, I hope it is done in such a way that it will always be possible easily to extract from the new NIPA most of the components of the old NIPA…. Having a fairly consistent quarterly time series going back to 1949 is a wonderful thing. Even with those data, it is a hard problem—without them, it would be hopeless. Another 65 years of compatible data would be more than welcome.

From the very beginning of national accounting, it has been understood that the focus on gross investment and gross product is a standing temptation to error…. Taking account of depreciation to yield net product—and correspondingly net national income—would provide a better measure…. Devote more resources to the improvement of depreciation (and depletion) accounting….

A useful and substantial extension of the standard statistical picture of the economy would be the regular publication of distributional information… well beyond the familiar Gini coefficient, which hides more than it reveals….

It would also be useful, in a different way, to have a serious accounting of the assets and liabilities of the public sector at all levels of government….

It hardly needs to be added that better and more complete tracking of the distribution of private wealth would also contribute to our understanding of economic welfare….

Finally, sticking close to familiar economic indicators, I would urge a major effort to collect more longitudinal data, especially on employment status, earnings, and income…

July 16, 2017


Brad DeLong
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