Blog Post

Blogs review: GDP, welfare and the rise of data-driven activities

What’s at stake: The worry today is not that investment in technology might not be as productive as we thought (the so-called computer paradox), but the fact that the economic value of the fast growing consumption and production of online data may not be adequately captured in official statistics. While GDP has always been an imperfect metric for welfare, a number of authors have wondered if this issue has not become worse in the information age.

By: and Date: February 15, 2014 Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance

What’s at stake: The worry today is not that investment in technology might not be as productive as we thought (the so-called computer paradox), but the fact that the economic value of the fast growing consumption and production of online data may not be adequately captured in official statistics. While GDP has always been an imperfect metric for welfare, a number of authors have wondered if this issue has not become worse in the information age.

Cartoon by Manu

The GDP puzzle

Erik Brynjolfsson and Adam Saunders write that we see the influence of the information age everywhere, except in the GDP statistics. More people than ever are using Wikipedia, Facebook, Craigslist, Pandora, Hulu and Google. Thousands of new information goods and services are introduced each year. Yet, according to the official GDP statistics, the information sector (software, publishing, motion picture and sound recording, broadcasting, telecom, and information and data processing services) is about the same share of the economy as it was 25 years ago — about 4%.

Erik Brynjolfsson and Adam Saunders write that the answer isn’t about quantity, it’s about price. GDP is a measure of the current market value of production. So if you listen to a free song, there’s virtually no contribution to GDP (perhaps a few fractions of a cent for the electricity you use). Brynjolsson notes that you could have an enormous of explosion of bits or articles or whatever else. If they’re priced at zero, the statisticians in Washington do the math and, lo and behold, it comes out as a big fat zero contribution for our GDP.

Free goods, GDP and consumer surplus

Since most of the on-going discussions about free online services and data revolve around their ‘unrecorded’ value in GDP statistics, it is tempting to think that everything would be fine if only this ‘value’ could be included ‘back into’ GDP. But it misses the distinction between GDP and economic value. Since its invention as part of the development of national income and product accounts by the US and UK treasuries in the 1930s and 1940s GDP was and remains primarily designed to capture, in the words of Robert Costanza and co-authors, only monetary transactions related to the production of goods and services”.

Greg Ip writes that typically economists determine non-monetary benefits by trying to calculate "consumer surplus": the difference between what a consumer pays and what they would be willing to pay. As stressed by Shane Greenstein, even for a good that has a price, it is hard to estimate consumer surplus. This issue is as old as newspapers and libraries as the benefits a reader obtained from a local newspaper probably exceeded the $0.25 he or she paid. Greg Ip notes that when so many Internet services such as search and social media are free and have no precise market based analog, the task is made even harder.

Modeled Behavior illustrates how two goods with the same contribution to GDP as PxQ and the exact same supply curves may yield highly different surpluses depending on the steepness of their demand curves.

Source: Modeled Behavior

Hal Varian writes that economists commonly use two measures to assign monetary value to some good or service: the "compensating variation" and the "equivalent variation". The compensating variation asks how much money we would have to give a person to make up for taking the good away from them while the equivalent variation asks how much money someone would give up to acquire the good in question. The term "consumer surplus" refers to an approximation to these theoretically ideal measures.

Free goods in the information age

If the problem of measuring economic surplus problem of free or cheap goods is as old old as newspapers, libraries, friendship and home production why is the issue coming back with such force with the advent of the information age?

Erik Brynjolfsson and Adam Saunders write that the irony is that we know less about the sources of value in the economy that we did 25 years ago. GDP is a more accurate metric of value in industrial-age industries like steel or automobiles than in information industries.

Tyler Cowen also wondered a couple of years ago if GDP was not going to end up telling us less and less about broader efforts to improve human well-being. Felix Salmon asked this question to Tyler: are you saying that the web has increased the amount of fun that people can have without spending money, or at least has increased the nation’s aggregate fun-to-spending ratio? Are you saying that the correlation between aggregate fun and GDP used to be stronger than it is now, thanks to the advent of the web? Tyler Cowen recently argued that Internet might indeed have higher average consumer surplus. A recent paper by Michael Mandel suggests that it may have been especially true in the recent period with the rise of data-driven economic activities.

Internet consumer surplus: some estimates

The Economist reports the results of a study that asked 3,360 consumers in six countries what they would pay for 16 Internet services that are now largely financed by ads. On average, households would pay €38 ($50) a month each for services they now get free. After subtracting the costs associated with intrusive ads and forgone privacy, McKinsey reckoned free ad-supported Internet services generated €32 billion of consumer surplus in America and €69 billion in Europe.

Hal Varian writes that one way to measure the value of online search would be to measure how much time it saves us compared to methods we used in the bad old days before Google. Based on a random sample of Google queries, researchers found that answering them using the library took about 22 minutes while answering them using Google took 7 minutes. Overall, Google saved 15 minutes of time. (This calculation ignores the cost of actually going to the library, which in some cases was quite substantial. The UM authors also looked at questions posed to reference librarians as well and got a similar estimate of time saved.) In dollar terms, it corresponds to $500 per adult worker per year.

Shane Greenstein of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management looked at broadband demand to estimate the consumer surplus from using Internet. Looking at broadband demand, which does have a price, helped capture the demand for all the gains a user would get from using a faster form of Internet access.

The Economist discusses another technique recently employed by Erik Brynjolfsson and Joo Hee Oh.  Between 2002 and 2011, the amount of leisure time Americans spent on the Internet rose from 3 to 5.8 hours per week. The authors conclude that in so far as consumers must have valued their time on the internet more than the alternatives, this increase must reflect a growing consumer surplus from the internet, which they value at $564 billion in 2011, or $2,600 per user.


Republishing and referencing

Bruegel considers itself a public good and takes no institutional standpoint. Anyone is free to republish and/or quote this post without prior consent. Please provide a full reference, clearly stating Bruegel and the relevant author as the source, and include a prominent hyperlink to the original post.

View comments
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Pia Hüttl

Dial N for NAIRU, or not?

What’s at stake: The concept of the NAIRU (Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment) has recently divided the minds in the economic blogosphere. We review the most important contributions on its usefulness, its shortcomings, alternatives and we discuss why it is such a contested concept.

By: Pia Hüttl Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: May 22, 2017
Read article More on this topic

Blog Post

Uuriintuya Batsaikhan
DSC_0794

UK economic performance post-Brexit

What’s at stake: Almost a year after the UK voted to leave the European Union, its economic performance has showed mixed results. The risks of a Brexit-induced recession do not seem to be materialising. On the contrary, up until the end of 2016 the UK saw a continuation of strong consumer spending and strong output in consumer-focused activities. However, the UK economy is showing signs of slowing down in the first quarter of 2017, with weak growth in the services sector and business investments. In addition, strong consumption growth started to cool down as individuals’ purchasing power declines due to a weaker exchange rate. This leads to a question whether it is the beginning of the Brexit slowdown. We review the contributions made on this topic in the last year.

By: Uuriintuya Batsaikhan and Justine Feliu Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: May 15, 2017
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Silvia Merler

The US and the productivity puzzle

What’s at stake: Productivity growth fell sharply following the global financial crisis and has remained sluggish since, inducing many to talk of a “productivity puzzle”. In the US, we may be seeing what look like early signs of a reversal. We review recent contributions on this theme.

By: Silvia Merler Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: May 8, 2017
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Silvia Merler

The Trump tax cut

What’s at stake: on Wednesday, the Trump administration - now 100 days old - unveiled a draft tax plan including the intention to enact a radical cut to the corporate income tax, lowering it to 15 percent. While we are still missing details on how this and other measures would be implemented, we review some of the early reactions.

By: Silvia Merler Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: May 2, 2017
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Silvia Merler

The decline of the labour share of income

What’s at stake: at odds with the conventional wisdom of constant factor shares, the portion of national income accruing to labour has been trending downward in the last three decades. This phenomenon has been linked to globalisation as well as to the change in the technological landscape - particularly “robotisation”. We review the recent literature on this issue.

By: Silvia Merler Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: April 24, 2017
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Uuriintuya Batsaikhan

Embracing the silver economy

What’s at stake: The oldest human in known history was a Frenchwoman called Jeanne Calment who celebrated her 122nd birthday in 1997. Thanks to advances in technology and medicine humans living until 100, if not 122, might not be an exception in the near future. Ageing, while described as a looming demographic crisis, also offers a silver lining. Business in rapidly ageing societies is already adapting their strategies to navigate the “silver economy”. This blogs review looks at the implications of the silver economy on growth, productivity and innovation as well as the opportunities offered by the silver industry.

By: Uuriintuya Batsaikhan Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: April 10, 2017
Read article More by this author

Blog Post

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Is China’s innovation strategy a threat?

What’s at stake: A number of recent contributions accuse China of acquiring technology from abroad without respecting international rules. This blog reviews the current debate that focuses on China’s supposed push to modernise its industry and the challenges for advanced economies. By leapfrogging to high-tech manufacturing products, the strategy threatens the competitive advantage of the US and the EU. The international rules-based order is put to a test facing large-scale government support to high-value added sectors and anti-competitive behaviour.

By: Robert Kalcik Topic: Global Economics & Governance, Innovation & Competition Policy Date: April 3, 2017
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Silvia Merler

The American opioid epidemics

What’s at stake: The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) declares that the country is “in the midst of an unprecedented opioid epidemic”. Since 1999, the rate of overdose deaths involving opioids - including prescription pain relievers and heroin - nearly quadrupled. We review contributions looking at the economic drivers and implications of this phenomenon.

By: Silvia Merler Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: March 27, 2017
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Pia Hüttl

Alice in gender-gap land

What’s at stake: The International Women’s Day on 8 March drew attention to the gender gap again, both in pay and in employment. Ongoing research on the topic shows that the gender gap persists worldwide, from finance to arts. For it to change, bold action is needed, ranging from targeted policies to rethinking gender norms.

By: Pia Hüttl Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: March 20, 2017
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Silvia Merler

Taxing robots?

What’s at stake: “More human than human”, was the motto guiding the Tyrell Corporation’s engineering of biorobotic androids, in 1982’s Blade Runner. Fast forward to 2016, and Bill Gates argues that if robots perform human work, they should be taxed like humans. We review what economists think about this idea.

By: Silvia Merler Topic: Innovation & Competition Policy Date: March 13, 2017
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Silvia Merler

European identity and the economic crisis

What’s at stake: the EU prepares to mark the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, and the European Commission has presented a white paper “on the future of Europe”. However, some have argued that Europe is going through a serious identity crisis, whose roots are to be found in the economic crisis and whose implications could challenge further steps towards integration. We review the recent contributions to this debate.

By: Silvia Merler Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: March 6, 2017
Read article More by this author

Blog Post

IMG_1985

The Trump market rally conundrum

What’s at stake: Since Donald Trump’s election in November, the US stock market has been on an unabated rally. The Dow Jones Industrial Average powered through the 20,000 mark for the first time in history. POTUS has been quick in using this financial bonanza as prima facie evidence of his early accomplishments. However, several commentators question the link between Trump’s unorthodox economic policy pledges, the stock market rally, and future growth prospects.

By: Alessio Terzi Topic: Finance & Financial Regulation, Global Economics & Governance Date: February 27, 2017
Load more posts