The Great Invention: The Story of GDP and the Making and Unmaking of the Modern World - Ehsan Masood (2016)


This book tells the story of how a little-known formula emerged from the embers of the Great Depression and World War II to become the global standard for how to run an economy.

The story is told through the remarkable people who made it happen and those, equally remarkable, who foresaw trouble ahead. They were, in each case, the children of war and poverty, but they had a single-minded determination to create a better, more prosperous, more equitable, and more peaceful world than the one they had been born into. They had radically different ideas on how to go about it. And by and large, the ideas of only one group, those who wished to keep the status quo, prevailed.

My interest in the topic was sparked more than thirty years ago in a school economics class in Karachi where our teacher1 introduced GDP by scribbling six symbols with white chalk on a slate blackboard. A few months later, in another economics class, this time in London, a different teacher scribbled the same symbols.

I remember wondering why the economy of one of the world’s poorest countries, which at the time was also run by a military dictatorship, could be judged in the same way as one of the richest. I resolved to one day find out, and this book is the result of that quest.

Although The Great Invention draws on economics, history, politics, and science, it is not principally a work of history or of science; nor is it a textbook of macroeconomics. There are many and better accounts of what GDP is and how it is compiled.2 There are also more comprehensive studies of economics and the environment—many referenced in the notes at the end of this book. The Great Invention instead presents a narrative account, though one that is based mostly on authentic and sometimes neglected source materials, together with the results of hundreds of interviews. These have been conducted over nearly two decades during the course of my working life as a journalist navigating the boundary between science and policy.

GDP is an idea that began with good intentions but has undoubtedly outlived its usefulness. The answer, however, is not to abandon it, as some are advocating. More than anything, I want to show that GDP can change—and change so it can measure the things that matter. Indeed, it must if we are to begin to reverse many of the problems that have beset our societies, including rising inequality and possible environmental collapse.

What began as a useful measure to assess a country’s prosperity and then measure it against its peers has trapped our societies and our leaders into a system from which we are unable to free ourselves. We must, and this book shows how we can.