Research Programs: Awards for Faculty

Period of Performance

1/1/2013 - 8/31/2013

Funding Totals

$33,600.00 (approved)
$33,600.00 (awarded)

A History of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP)

FAIN: HB-50277-13

Dirk Peter Philipsen
Virginia State University (Petersburg, VA 23803-2520)

Since the Great Depression, U.S. economic policy-making has depended on a set of accounts first developed by Simon Kuznets during the height of the Great Depression. Today better known as Gross Domestic Product (GDP), national income accounts were adopted, in the aftermath of World War II, by nations around the world. Soon, they became a national and international shorthand for economic performance, and are commonly used as a key indicator for national welfare. Initially a great accomplishment, GDP is increasingly criticized for failing to measure all that matters. Scholars' critiques of GDP are widely understood by now, yet no history exists to explain how an income and product account moved from national bookkeeping tool to become an international economic benchmark and subsequently morphed into a worldwide standard for progress, well-being, and success. This is such a history.

Media Coverage

The End of GDP (Review)
Author(s): Katy Lederer
Publication: The New Yorker
Date: 10/9/2016
URL: http://

What's Wrong With GDP (Review)
Author(s): Jonathan Derbyshire
Publication: Prospect Magazine
Date: 7/21/2015
Abstract: Interview with author of "The Little Big Number" and review of book
URL: http://

Review of "The Little Big Number" (Review)
Author(s): Stephen Macekura
Publication: American Historical Review
Date: 6/1/2016
URL: http://

Associated Products

The Little Big Number: How GDP Came to Rule the World, and What to Do About It (Book)
Title: The Little Big Number: How GDP Came to Rule the World, and What to Do About It
Author: Dirk Philipsen
Abstract: In one lifetime, GDP, or Gross Domestic Product, has ballooned from a narrow economic tool into a global article of faith. It is our universal yardstick of progress. As The Little Big Number demonstrates, this spells trouble. While economies and cultures measure their performance by it, GDP ignores central facts such as quality, costs, or purpose. It only measures output: more cars, more accidents; more lawyers, more trials; more extraction, more pollution—all count as success. Sustainability and quality of life are overlooked. Losses don’t count. GDP promotes a form of stupid growth and ignores real development. How and why did we get to this point? Dirk Philipsen uncovers a submerged history dating back to the 1600s, climaxing with the Great Depression and World War II, when the first version of GDP arrived at the forefront of politics. Transcending ideologies and national differences, GDP was subsequently transformed from a narrow metric to the purpose of economic activity. Today, increasing GDP is the highest goal of politics. In accessible and compelling prose, Philipsen shows how it affects all of us. But the world can no longer afford GDP rule. A finite planet cannot sustain blind and indefinite expansion. If we consider future generations equal to our own, replacing the GDP regime is the ethical imperative of our times. More is not better. As Philipsen demonstrates, the history of GDP reveals unique opportunities to fashion smarter goals and measures. The Little Big Number explores a possible roadmap for a future that advances quality of life rather than indiscriminate growth.
Year: 2015
Primary URL:
Primary URL Description: Princeton University Press
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Type: Single author monograph
ISBN: ISBN: 97806911
Copy sent to NEH?: No

The Growth Delusion (Article)
Title: The Growth Delusion
Author: Dirk Philipsen
Abstract: All modern economies are organized to pursue one central goal: indiscriminate growth as measured by GDP. Despite widespread criticism, they continue to follow a path we can no longer afford. Explaining how and why this happened, this article explores why concerns about stagnation may be misplaced and distract from the real problem of mindless growth
Year: 2015
Primary URL:
Format: Journal
Periodical Title: The Long and Short
Publisher: NESTA

GDP's Wicked Spell (Article)
Title: GDP's Wicked Spell
Author: Dirk Philipsen
Abstract: A historical discussion of why more is not necessarily better
Year: 2015
Primary URL:
Format: Journal
Publisher: The Chronicle of Higher Education