Since World War II, most countries around the world have come to use gross domestic product, or GDP, as the core metric for prosperity. The GDP measures market output: the monetary value of all the goods and services produced in an economy during a given period, usually a year. Governments can fail if this number falls—and so, not surprisingly, governments strive to make it climb. But striving to grow GDP is not the same as ensuring the well-being of a society.
In truth, “GDP measures everything,” as Senator Robert Kennedy famously said, “except that which makes life worthwhile.” The number does not measure health, education, equality of opportunity, the state of the environment or many other indicators of the quality of life. It does not even measure crucial aspects of the economy such as its sustainability: whether or not it is headed for a crash. What we measure matters, though, because it guides what we do. Americans got an inkling of this causal connection during the Vietnam War, with the military's emphasis on “body counts”: the weekly tabulation of the number of enemy soldiers killed. Reliance on this morbid metric led U.S. forces to undertake operations that had no purpose except to raise the body count. Like a drunk looking for his keys under the lamppost (because that is where the light is), the emphasis on body counts kept us from understanding the bigger picture: the slaughter was inducing more Vietnamese people to join the Viet Cong than U.S. forces were killing
Now a different body count—that from COVID-19—is proving to be a horribly good measure of societal performance. It has little correlation with GDP. The U.S. is the richest country in the world, with a GDP of more than $20 trillion in 2019, a figure that suggested we had a highly efficient economic engine, a racing car that could outperform any other. But the U.S. recorded upward of 100,000 deaths by June, whereas Vietnam, with a GDP of $262 billion (and a mere 4 percent of U.S. GDP per capita) had zero. In the race to save lives, this less prosperous country has beaten us handily.