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Is GDP a good measure of well-being?

Mapping out health and income

GDP has been used as a measure of economic well-being since the 1940s: It measures the total economic output by individuals, businesses, and the government and is a tangible way to quantify the state of the economy. However, some economists have questioned how well GDP measures well-being: For example, GDP fails to account for the quality of goods and services, the depletion of natural resources, and unpaid jobs that are nevertheless important (e.g., household chores). Although this criticism may be well founded, GDP is highly correlated with other measures of well-being, such as life expectancy at birth and the infant mortality rate, both of which capture some aspects of quality of life.

The map above shows a version of GDP per capita for each nation—specifically, GDP per capita adjusted by purchasing power parity (PPP). Currencies differ in their purchasing power (i.e., the number of units of a currency it takes to buy the same basket of goods across countries), so it’s hard to compare the GDPs of different countries at face value and current exchange rates. Thus, we use PPP-converted GDP per capita, which equalizes the purchasing power of different currencies by accounting for the differences in the prices of goods across countries. People in countries with higher levels of per capita GDP have, on average, higher levels of income and consumption. As expected, the map shows that developed countries (e.g., the U.S., Canada, most of Western Europe, and Australia) have higher levels of PPP-converted GDP per capita.

The infant mortality rate is the number of deaths of infants under one year old per 1,000 live births, which can be interpreted as an index for the general health of a country. As the second map shows, infant mortality is the greatest in African countries, some Latin American countries, and parts of Asia such as India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea. If we look back at the first map, we see that the GDPs of these countries are among the lowest. Similarly, we also see that low infant mortality rates in the advanced countries correspond with high GDPs.

Life expectancy at birth reflects the average number of years a newborn is expected to live, holding constant the current mortality rates. Life expectancy reflects the overall mortality level of a population and is another indicator for the general health of a country. The last map shows that life expectancy is the greatest in the U.S., Canada, Chile, parts of Europe, Australia, and other developed countries that are in the top GDP bracket; countries with lower life expectancies, such as the countries in Africa and Asia noted above, have very low GDPs.

These maps reveal the high degree of correlation between GDP and other measures of well-being. So, although GDP is an imperfect measure and doesn’t capture every aspect of a country’s quality of life, it’s still a reasonable proxy of the overall well-being of an economy.

How these maps were created: The original post referenced an interactive map from our now discontinued GeoFRED site. The revised post provides a replacement map from FRED’s new mapping tool. To create FRED maps, go to the data series page in question and look for the green “VIEW MAP” button at the top right of the graph. See this post for instructions to edit a FRED map. Only series with a green map button can be mapped.

Suggested by Maximiliano Dvorkin and Asha Bharadwaj.

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