The Power of a Single Number: A Political History of GDP

Philipp Lepenies. Columbia Univ., $30 (192p) ISBN 978-0-231-17510-4
In this brief but absorbing book, Lepenies, guest professor for social science at the Free University of Berlin, details how GDP became the “most powerful statistical figure in human history.” He traces the concept of calculating a national income back to 17th-century Englishman William Petty. GDP (originally known as GNP, or gross national product) first gained international traction during WWII, when allies America, Canada, and Great Britain met to “harmonize” the calculation. Lepenies devotes special attention to his native Germany, relating how West Germany adopted the statistic in the immediate postwar period in order to receive Marshall Plan funds. In postwar America, meanwhile, GDP’s acceptance by industry and the political establishment grew along with the economy. Lepenies asserts that the popularity of GDP has endured mainly because it can be determined quickly, making it more useful for governments than other, longer-term measurements. His coverage of proposed alternatives only highlights how difficult it will be to “break the power of the single number.” This little book about a big number will impress readers who might never have previously considered the statistics underlying our lives. (May)
Reviewed on: 03/28/2016
Release date: 05/01/2016
Genre: Nonfiction
Open Ebook - 978-0-231-54143-5
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