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A High-Stakes Shift: Turning the Tide From GDP to New Prosperity Indicators


  • Isabelle CASSIERS

    () (UNIVERSITE CATHOLIQUE DE LOUVAIN, Institut de Recherches Economiques et Sociales (IRES) and Institut d'analyse du changement dans l'histoire et les sociétés contemporaines (IACCHOS), and FNRS)

  • Géraldine THIRY

    () (Collège d’études mondiales, Fondation Maison des Science de l’Homme, Paris)


For more than half a century, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has been viewed as the dominant indicator of economic and social progress. Its visibility and increasingly widespread use have contributed to the incorrect identification of economic growth (that is, increased GDP) with improved well-being for all. GDP’s supremacy as an indicator is being challenged, however: around the world, its limits are being questioned and solutions proposed for overcoming them. Given the broadly accepted idea that indicators affect reality, changing them is a high-stakes issue. Potentially, re-fashioning progress indicators may change our representations of the world, redefine our ends, and reinvent the means by which we pursue them. Such a change is part of a complex transformation currently taking place in our economic, social, political ideological systems. The four sections of this paper put forward the argument that the debate over new progress indicators is symptomatic of an historical turning point, and for this reason deserves careful attention. The first section reviews the specific context in which national accounting was established as an economic policy tool rooted in post-war social compromises. The second section discusses the three major justifications for the search for alternative indicators: social goals which economic growth captures inaccurately or not at all; the gap between economic growth and subjective assessments of "life satisfaction"; and, finally, the complex and urgent issue of the environment. The third section presents a concise overview of existing indicators that claim to supplement or replace GDP, dividing them among the three categories of justification described above and demonstrating the inextricable link between methodological and normative questions. From this follows the fourth and final section, which addresses the core questions raised by GDP and the problem of replacing it, and examines the hypothesis that our societies are at an historical turning point in which new compromises are emerging, in ways not yet entirely discernable to social actors.

Suggested Citation

  • Isabelle CASSIERS & Géraldine THIRY, 2014. "A High-Stakes Shift: Turning the Tide From GDP to New Prosperity Indicators," Discussion Papers (IRES - Institut de Recherches Economiques et Sociales) 2014002, Université catholique de Louvain, Institut de Recherches Economiques et Sociales (IRES).
  • Handle: RePEc:ctl:louvir:2014002

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Andrew E. Clark & Paul Frijters & Michael A. Shields, 2008. "Relative Income, Happiness, and Utility: An Explanation for the Easterlin Paradox and Other Puzzles," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 46(1), pages 95-144, March.
    2. Isabelle Cassiers & Catherine Delain, 2006. "La croissance ne fait pas le bonheur : les économistes le savent-ils ?," Discussion Papers (IRES - Institut de Recherches Economiques et Sociales) 38, Université catholique de Louvain, Institut de Recherches Economiques et Sociales (IRES).
    3. Isabelle CASSIERS & Géraldine THIRY, 2009. "Au-delà du PIB : réconcilier ce qui compte et ce que l’on compte," Discussion Papers (IRES - Institut de Recherches Economiques et Sociales) 75, Université catholique de Louvain, Institut de Recherches Economiques et Sociales (IRES).
    4. Jeroen van den Bergh & Giorgos Kallis, 2012. "Growth, A-Growth or Degrowth to Stay within Planetary Boundaries?," Journal of Economic Issues, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 46(4), pages 909-920.
    5. Fleurbaey, Marc & Blanchet, Didier, 2013. "Beyond GDP: Measuring Welfare and Assessing Sustainability," OUP Catalogue, Oxford University Press, number 9780199767199, June.
    6. Geraldine THIRY & Isabelle CASSIERS, 2010. "Alternative Indicators to GDP: Values behind Numbers. Adjusted Net Savings in Question," Discussion Papers (IRES - Institut de Recherches Economiques et Sociales) 2010018, Université catholique de Louvain, Institut de Recherches Economiques et Sociales (IRES).
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    Cited by:

    1. Anders Hayden & Jeffrey Wilson, 2016. "Is It What You Measure That Really Matters? The Struggle to Move beyond GDP in Canada," Sustainability, MDPI, Open Access Journal, vol. 8(7), pages 1-18, July.
    2. Géraldine Thiry, 2015. "Beyond GDP: Conceptual Grounds of Quantification. The Case of the Index of Economic Well-Being (IEWB)," Social Indicators Research: An International and Interdisciplinary Journal for Quality-of-Life Measurement, Springer, vol. 121(2), pages 313-343, April.
    3. Olivier Malay, 2017. "Beyond GDP indicators: A tension between powerful stakeholders and transformative potential?," Discussion Papers (IRES - Institut de Recherches Economiques et Sociales) 2017018, Université catholique de Louvain, Institut de Recherches Economiques et Sociales (IRES).
    4. Schmelzer, Matthias, 2015. "The growth paradigm: History, hegemony, and the contested making of economic growthmanship," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 118(C), pages 262-271.

    More about this item


    Beyond GDP; indicators; Sociology of quantification; New Public Management; Redefining prosperity;

    JEL classification:

    • I31 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Welfare, Well-Being, and Poverty - - - General Welfare, Well-Being
    • E01 - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics - - General - - - Measurement and Data on National Income and Product Accounts and Wealth; Environmental Accounts
    • O44 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Economic Growth and Aggregate Productivity - - - Environment and Growth
    • P46 - Economic Systems - - Other Economic Systems - - - Consumer Economics; Health; Education and Training; Welfare, Income, Wealth, and Poverty

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