Crashing the GDP

At 9 p.m. on June 12, there was a collision on the freeway between Baltimore and D.C. The first car, a beige Prius. The second, a gigantic 18-wheeler tearing down I-95. The truck knocked the Prius sideways, sending it spiraling down the road and into the guardrail, the only thing that stopped it from plunging over the edge into the river below. The truck kept going.

This, it turns out, was how the first day of my summer internship at the Institute for Policy Studies ended.

Only 10 hours earlier, I had arrived at the Institute’s Washington office. I would be assisting a campaign for the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), a more comprehensive measurement to gauge growth than Gross Domestic Product. Unlike GDP, which simply calculates all national expenditures, the GPI broadens the concept of wellbeing to include economic, environmental, and social factors.

Gabriel Saldana/Flickr

Gabriel Saldana/Flickr

I came that day with a gray blazer and stiff smile, easing a bit when I met my boss — Daphne Wysham, a thin woman with a kind voice and inclination for perpetual motion. I settled into my desk, ready to get into the rhythm of office routine.

Less than an hour later, Daphne suggested a road trip.

While the main IPS office is in the District of Columbia, the GPI has gained a lot of traction in Maryland. There, thanks to the efforts of Governor Martin O’Malley, it’s now a formal metric to supplement Gross State Product. Many University of Maryland professors had heard about the GPI and were curious to meet with us to talk about how they could use it. So several of us piled into Daphne’s car for the 38-mile trek across state lines — a journey that typically takes about an hour.

It turned into one of the worst commutes any of us had ever experienced.

From 3 to 6 p.m., we crawled up I-95. First, we counted the minutes until our meeting. Then, we monitored the minutes since it was supposed to have started. We checked and re-checked traffic reports. We debated whether to turn back home.

We didn’t cancel, and despite arriving more than an hour late, the meeting went far better than any of us expected. Talking with the professors, I caught a glimpse of what the GPI could mean beyond theory — whether as a guiding value for our public policies, a reflection of the burdens of our health care costs, or a marker to gauge the effects of civic activity. We left tired but satisfied.

Then there was the ride back.

Since I live in Baltimore, only 20 minutes away from the university, I took the bus home. Daphne and her colleagues all live in D.C. or Virginia, so they piled into her beige Prius and headed down I-95. At 9 p.m., the 18-wheeler knocked it into the guardrail.

Amazingly, no one was hurt. They were terrified, but unharmed.

That nightmarish journey symbolizes many things. Chief among them: the precariousness of life and the wonders of the MARC train, my car-free choice for commuting between Baltimore and D.C. It also taught me my first real-world GPI lesson.

What were the costs of this trip? Under the lens of GDP, that near-death experience was virtually cost-free. In fact, the money my boss is spending to replace her car blindly beefs up our GDP.

But we all know better. An accident, including the money we spend after it, doesn’t boost our wellbeing. The GPI allows us to subtract these costs — as well as the frustration of bumper-to-bumper traffic, the hours lost with our friends and families, and the added car emissions from our commutes — from calculations of our national progress.

But was the trip worth it? I hope so. The university meeting sparked creative ideas and set a strong foundation for integrating the GPI in Baltimore.

And I, for one — between the traffic jam, Daphne’s stories on the commute up, and the shocking news about her death-defying drive home — wound up with an unforgettable first-day-on-the-job story.

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