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A few well-written words can convey a wealth of information, particularly when there is no lag time between when they are written and when they are read. The IPS blog gives you an opportunity to hear directly from IPS scholars and staff on ideas large and small and for us to hear back from you.



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Entries tagged "maryland"

Spending is Not Growth: The Case Against GDP

August 6, 2013 ·

Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley meets with GPI representatives, by Tom Nappi at Annapolis, Maryland / FlickrGross Domestic Product (GDP) is a measure of final market value of goods/services produced by a country in a specific time period—nothing more, nothing less. It is easy, however, to fall under the misconception that GDP is a reliable indicator of economic growth or of a country’s well-being.

One of the core problems with GDP is that it only adds. That is, GDP calculates any kind of spending as improving the health of an economy—a limitation that is clearly problematic.

As an example, how does GDP account for an economic disaster? The oil spill British Petroleum (BP) caused in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 is a perfect example of the limitations of GDP. The transactions made to replace assets damaged or destroyed by such a disaster are not differentiated in final GDP scores, to the tune of about $20 billion in the 2010 oil spill.

Not to mention, an oil spill negatively affects the local economy in so many ways that GDP does not account for: for instance, fishermen losing their jobs and livelihood, restaurants temporarily closing or going out of business entirely, and tourism in the area rapidly declining. Moreover, the local ecosystem is completely thrown off balance and damaged, sometimes irreparably, for many years to come.

Hurricane Katrina provides another significant example of GDP’s limitations: With about $250 billion in cleanup costs, the hurricane’s effect on GDP certainly did not reflect the well-being of New Orleans citizens or economy in the years following the disaster. Thousands of former residents were permanently displaced, and the city is still struggling to approach pre-Katrina population figures. As of 2012, the city has reached only 80 percent of its former population.

Although Louisiana’s GDP initially dropped off after the disaster, as the cleanup effort began it quickly began to climb, approaching pre-disaster numbers within only five years. Yet while the state’s GDP was rapidly recovering, the city itself was not: Alyson Plyer, the chief demographer at the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, estimated in 2010 that the city was only “five years into a 10- to 20-year recovery project.” Going by GDP alone, however, the disaster seemed to be a hiccup rather than a monumentally disruptive catastrophe.

Economic disasters like the BP oil spill and Hurricane Katrina demonstrate the inherent limitations of GDP as a measurement of economic growth, health, or the well-being of citizens in an economy. GDP scores are simply not built to accommodate these negative externalities that affect people, wildlife, ecosystems, and communities.

However, alternative methods have been developed to more accurately account for these externalities. The Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), developed by ecological economists in the 1980s and 90s, is much better equipped to measure activities that diminish financial and social well-being and negatively impact the environment. GPI, for instance, quantifies externalities such as ozone depletion or loss of wetlands as harmful costs—whereas GDP is not able to differentiate these harmful costs from positive economic activity so long as dollars are being spent.

Some states have already started to move away from GDP because of its inherent limitations: Despite early opposition, Maryland—in conjunction with the University of Maryland’s Center for Integrative Environmental Research—developed and implemented a GPI tool for policy-makers in early 2010. The tool, which measures how indicators of well-being interact with and affect each other, uses 26 different indicators from economic, environmental, and social categories to calculate GPI.

Maryland’s successful adoption of GPI will hopefully encourage other states to follow suit and develop similar measurements for a more sustainable economic future—one that values its citizens and the environment more highly than the dollar.


Michael Faul is an intern for the New Economy Working Group project.

Shell-shocked Again, this Time because of Aurora

July 27, 2012 ·

The night of Friday, July 20 was destined to make headlines — but never for this.

After three years of spiraling anticipation, the premier of The Dark Knight Rises was supposed to be the pinnacle of the American movie-going experience. But, in the aftermath of the midnight mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado, the nation wasn't enthralled by the big screen. Instead, we were collectively shell-shocked by this latest murderous rampage, which killed 12 dead and wounded 58 others.

As we mourn these senseless deaths, the media is sensationalizing the life and disappointments of James Holmes, the 24-year-old sole suspect behind the tragedy. Was he an obsessive fan with a blurred vision of reality? A lonely boy looking to be heard? Or an ambitious student weighed down by pressures to succeed? An entire narrative is spinning around him. It's a mythology that looks to craft as much fascination with the shooter as there was for the Batman movie itself.

M Glasgow/FlickrBut the particulars of Holmes' biography, riveting as they may be, should not become our take-away from what happened in Colorado. The heart of this story is not the state of James Holmes but the state of our country.

We've become a nation of jumbled values. While parents, politicians and everyone in between declare community safety a sacred right, movies glorify violence. And as we all mourn Colorado's needless deaths, gun-rights groups rail against the thought of stricter gun control.

But beneath the NRA's narrative of freedom and self-defense, "good, traditional American values," lies a simple truth: The gun industry is exactly that — an industry. And theirs is a profit motive so brutal that, according to one study, the gun industry is "working to recruit future customers among America's children…through advertising campaigns and even video games."

They're also working to keep guns ready at hand, pouring over $5,500,000 last year to lobby politicians.

How easy was it for Holmes to buy his weapons? Very. Colorado has some of the flimsiest gun laws in the United States: The assault rifle, shotgun, and handgun Holmes bought in the span of only a few months were all perfectly legal and raised zero flags. And where local distributors failed, there was always the unregulated online market, which outfitted Holmes with thousands of bullets and ballistic gear.

Each gun or bullet sold is profit in someone's eyes, so it's no wonder that every time we talk about gun control, a deafening uproar emerges. And there's little incentive for politicians to take a stand, either. Industry is industry, after all, and any production will raise GDP. Perversely, the more guns we churn out, the better off we call ourselves. Politicians get swelling statistics to market off to voters, the gun industry gets tenuous regulation, and we get ever more gun fatalities.

There's a defect in our priorities. We look at price tags and call it "value." But what of those dozens of victims in Colorado? Or the other estimated 100,000 people killed or injured by guns each year?

If we really must attach a dollar sign to understand, the University of Chicago Crime Lab pegs the annual cost of gun violence at $100 billion. But for all the media attention the Aurora shooting has gotten, most gun crimes flit silently under our radar — out of sight, out of mind. The societal damages they inflict are buried under headlines and forgotten.

For these unheard victims, it's time we get our values straight. We can't simply take gun sales at face-value. We must consider the staggering costs they carry along. The Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) is one possible step in that direction. The GPI, an alternate measurement to GDP, broadens our concept of wellbeing by integrating social, economic, and environmental indicators in its calculations of progress. One of these indicators, sure enough, is crime.

The Maryland GPI, for example, factors in not only direct out-of-pocket expenses, but also the more profound damages of crime, like trauma and fear, when determining its state-wide wellbeing. That way, when Maryland's legislators evaluate gun policy and regulation, they will realize the deeper, more substantial impacts that will work their way throughout the state.

The Colorado shootings have made one thing certain: We need to reorient our values. We need progress to be defined not by gun sales, but by the safety of our communities. And so we need a yardstick that will show both politicians and the public the true costs of our gun-wielding culture and the dangerous, short-sighted policies they have spawned. Only then will we have taken to heart the true message of Friday's tragedy. Only then will it not have been in vain.

Vicky Plestis is an intern at the Institute for Policy Studies, where she helps research alternative models of measuring economic progress. www.ips-dc.org

A New Set of Tools for Measuring Economic Progress

October 24, 2011 ·

Maryland's government is embracing an alternative way to monitor the state's wellbeing called the Genuine Progress Indicator, which brings depth to the analysis of the state's economic growth. At the Institute for Policy Studies, we are looking for lessons in Maryland, as well as in similar exercises being undertaken elsewhere. This is the second in a series of posts about this work. This was the first one. A longer version is running as an op-ed via the Institute's OtherWords editorial service.

More than 70 years after its emergence, the desirability of GDP growth is so entrenched in our national and international discourse that it's hard to imagine it any other way. The revered indicator's expansion or contraction can swing national elections. Conversely, talk of GDP declines can drive a country to war.

During tough economic times such as these, it's particularly surprising to have a leader bucking the tide. Yet Martin O'Malley is doing just that. Maryland's governor is the first in the United States to embrace a set of alternative indicators that bring depth to the analysis of his state's economic growth. Under O'Malley's leadership, the state's officials are now gathering and annually updating economic, social, and environmental data that help measure the overall wellbeing of Maryland's citizens.

The 26 underlying indicators, which collectively comprise the "Genuine Progress Indicator," are a more meaningful gauge of the overall economic health and wellbeing of Maryland residents than standard economic measuring sticks. For example, the state tracks things like volunteerism, time spent with family and loved ones, and air quality in its quest to gauge its real progress. These indicators may lack concrete economic value, but studies show they help make a society more healthy and vibrant.

GPI assesses what's left behind when the "gross product" expands. Is the landscape more or less toxic than before? Is the air and water cleaner or dirtier? How well-educated is the populace? Is public transportation decent? Is crime more common? Are too many people spending more time commuting to jobs than at home with their kids?

Maryland leads the nation in measuring overall societal wellbeing through the GPI, but there are similar efforts underway elsewhere in the United States, as well as in Canada, France, and even Bhutan. Yes, Bhutan, a tiny country nestled in the Himalayan mountains. There, "gross domestic happiness" carries more weight than the gross domestic product.

It's time to recall Simon Kuznets' warnings about the limitations of the GDP and to pick up where he left off by embracing a new set of tools that will help shape good social, environmental, and economic policy — not just for Maryland, but for our entire country and the world.

Daphne Wysham is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, where she's conducting research around ways in which alternative metrics to the GDP, such as Maryland's "Genuine Progress Indicator," can be used to build a more sustainable society. www.ips-dc.org

A Dagger Pointed at Maryland's Peace Movement

October 17, 2011 ·

It's "a dagger pointed directly at the heart of Montgomery County," warned County Executive Ike Leggett.

Huh? Was there a do-it-yourself bomb shop in Bethesda? An open sewer in Silver Spring? An organization dedicated to teaching kids in Chevy Chase to smoke cigarettes? No, Leggett was fretting about a local, non-binding peace resolution.

The measure, that just a week earlier had appeared sure to pass the Montgomery County Council, would urge Congress to reallocate funds from spending on wars and weapons toward starved local services and community needs.

Lockheed Martin feels threatened by a peace resolution. Photo by ryry9379.When I first saw this quote in a Washington Examiner article, I thought I must've misread it. I located those darned reading glasses and read it again. OK, he really said that. "Leggett asked the council to table the resolution because it is a 'dagger pointed directly at the heart of Montgomery County,'" wrote reporter Rachel Baye.

Whoa. A dagger pointed directly at the heart of Maryland's Montgomery County? Nearly 1 million people live in the county, which blends Washington suburbs, medical research facilities, assorted government installations, and zoning-protected farmland.

I live in neighboring Prince George's County but have many friends and colleagues living there. I go to the movies in Bethesda. I sometimes buy food at the Takoma Park Co-op or the Trader Joe's in Sliver Spring. I would hate to see it all destroyed. And Montgomery, which happens to be one of the nation's 10 most affluent counties, has a pretty big heart. All that blood should the dagger, I mean the resolution, actually pass?

Leggett's outburst surprised me, in part because I recently participated in a town hall meeting where this topic was discussed with hundreds of Montgomery County residents, as well as some elected officials, and experts. I even said a word or two about the $2.5 trillion U.S. taxpayers have squandered on endless wars in the last decade and how Montgomery County's taxpayers will hand the Pentagon $2.5 billion next year. I think we'd all be better off if we spent that money on things that actually make our lives better.

The sentiment that excessive, inefficient, unnecessary military spending came at the expense of critical health, education, infrastructure needs of county residents seemed reasonable and unanimous. I didn't sense fear of imminent danger in the room. Plus, remember that this is a non-binding resolution. As Baye explained, "it had no chance to actually end wars or starve the Pentagon."

So, what's got Leggett so upset?

The military contractor Lockheed Martin is located in Montgomery County and employs 5,200 people in the county. We're all scared about jobs. Surely the resolution doesn’t want to cut jobs. I looked at the resolution again. Nope. There's nothing in there about firing Lockheed's employees or tossing any corporations into the Potomac River.

But we want plentiful and good jobs. As the hundreds of participants in that town hall meeting discussed, and the squelched resolution declares, the least economically beneficial way to spend a federal dollar is through military spending. Analysts have demonstrated that more and better jobs, which spur greater economic benefits for our local, state, and national economies, arise through federal spending on jobs in non-military fields such as infrastructure, transportation, healthcare, and education.

In other words, the government can create more jobs by hiring more teachers and doctors than soldiers. Economically, building bridges beats making bombers.

Montgomery County, like most other U.S. counties, has suffered significant cutbacks to these critical areas of community and human needs in recent years. The Pentagon's budget has not.

Lockheed may be particularly nervous because military spending cuts are on their way, thanks to the drive to shrink the budget deficit. The defense industry is already beginning to shift some operations away from military production more and more into non-military related activities. Lockheed Martin, like its competitors, employs thousands of people in areas of technology services that have nothing to do with the military.

Finally, shifting resources in that direction by cutting war spending won't only bring dollars home, but will push companies like Lockheed Martin further in the direction of non-defense jobs, thus creating more and better jobs for the county. This resolution puts Montgomery County residents on the side of progress and urges the state to move in the right direction sooner rather than later.

When deficit reduction is the goal of federal policy, the more money we spend on unnecessary weapons programs, costly ineffective wars, and unnecessary military bases, the less money there will be for teachers, police officers, firefighters, bridges, and roads in Maryland's Montgomery County and the rest of the nation.

Mr. Leggett, the dagger threatening our life's blood is the unnecessary suffering brought on by underinvestment in the vital services that provide our children with a good education, our families with good health, and our communities with green infrastructure improvements and jobs.

While many defense-industry jobs can't be immediately transitioned to the more economically beneficial jobs, many can and must be in the near future. This isn't only good economics, it's good for Maryland.

Every county in the nation should have similar resolutions urging the same thing. Thank you, Montgomery County, for leading the way.

Karen Dolan is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow and a member of the New Priorities Network coordinating committee.

The Dawning of GDP's Hegemony

October 12, 2011 ·

Maryland's government is embracing an alternative way to monitor the state's wellbeing called the Genuine Progress Indicator, which brings depth to the analysis of the state's economic growth. At the Institute for Policy Studies, we are looking for lessons in Maryland, as well as in similar exercises being undertaken elsewhere. This is the first in a series of posts about this work.

Simon Kuznets warned that GDP was not a valid instrument of social policy, but his creation became a barometer for the entire global economy. Archive photo.It was the height of the Great Depression and policymakers could see the symptoms of economic malaise everywhere. Unemployment soared to 25 percent. Food lines at soup kitchens wrapped around city blocks. Farmers watched helplessly as crop prices plummeted, then lost their farms. The evidence was clear, yet in the 1930s, Congress lacked any tools with which to accurately measure just how the economy as a whole was faring. With no commonly accepted national income data, they had no guideposts upon which to base sound economic policy.

And so Congress turned to a young and promising Russian-American economist. U.S. lawmakers asked Professor Simon Kuznets of the National Bureau of Economic Research, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in economics, to develop a data set to assess the state of the national economy. In 1937, Kuznets presented a vast volume of data on income to Congress. It became the Gross National Product (GNP).

With remarkable foresight and humility, Kuznets warned that his newly minted GNP shouldn't be used as an instrument of social policy. It could never adequately measure the things we value, he said, such as housework or caring for elderly parents. Nor, he warned, could the GNP distinguish between the growth of good and bad jobs. The data would be the same if workers earned their pay from employers who endangered their lives or guarded their health and safety. "Goals for more growth should be more growth of what and for what," Kuznets said.

Alas, Kuznets' warnings on the GNP — later renamed the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) — went unheeded. Instead, the GDP became the barometer of health not only for the U.S. economy, but for the entire global economy.

To be continued…

Daphne Wysham is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) and the founder and co-director of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network (SEEN). She is conducting research around ways in which alternative metrics to the GDP, such as Maryland's "Genuine Progress Indicator," can be used to build a more sustainable society.