These days a novel item has been added to the traditional menu of objections to free trade: the notion that if consumers are presented with an open market, they will buy things that aren’t good for them. It’s not hard to think of examples: High-priced basketball shoes crafted in sweatshops. Fancy movie-spinoff toys, given away free with smiley-snacks. Fat- and additive-laden junk food, hawked with flashy music and video. Actual military vehicles, fitted with air conditioners and high-end sound systems. Save enough on your mass-produced chicken parts to buy the antibacterial soap you need to wash off the salmonella they contain. Enter a card number, and quietly gamble away your savings. Surely the reader can think of many more.
Evidently many of the “goods” being offered for sale aren’t good; some are actually quite bad. Others are sold to fix the damage created by other “goods”. However, the standard measure of a society’s overall output, the Gross Domestic Product, fails to take any of this into account. The GDP is the total value of all finished goods and services in the economy — pet rocks, car alarms, prisons, military hardware, David Cassidy records, you name it — everything purchased by consumers. And since free trade adds to the GDP, it tends also to add to the pile of crap offered to the poor consumer. This has led progressive-minded folk to seek an alternative index of economic growth — one that will only count as “good” the things that truly are. Redefining Progress, a progressive think-tank, has devised an index that they call the GPI — Genuine Progress Indicator. One of its main objectives is to help separate what is truly progress from what is just more junk:
Parenting becomes child care, visits on the porch become psychiatry and VCRs, the watchful eyes of neighbors become alarm systems and police officers, the kitchen table becomes McDonald’s — up and down the line, the things people used to do for and with one another turn into things they have to buy. Day care adds more than $4 billion to the GDP; VCRs and kindred entertainment gear add almost $60 billion…. The GPI reveals that much of what we now call growth of GDP is really just one of three things in disguise: fixing blunders and social decay from the past, borrowing resources from the future, or shifting functions from the traditional realm of household and community to the realm of the monetized economy.*