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GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History Hardcover – February 23, 2014

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Editorial Reviews


Winner of the 2015 Bronze Medal in Economics, Axiom Business Book Awards

One of The Wall Street Journal's Best Books of 2014

One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2014

One of FA-mag.com's Books of the Year 2014

One of "The Books Quartz Read" in 2014

One of Minnpost.com's 'Three (plus) books for the econ buff on your list' 2014

Longlisted for the FT & McKinsey Business Book of the Year 2014

"GDP is, as Diane Coyle points out in her entertaining and informative GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History, a bodge, an ongoing argument."--John Lanchester, London Review of Books

"[A] little charmer of a book . . . GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History is just what the title promises. . . . Cowperthwaite himself would nod in agreement over Ms. Coyle's informed discussion of what the GDP misses and how it misfires. . . . Ms. Coyle--a graceful and witty writer, by the way--recounts familiar problems and adds some new ones. . . . [E]xcellent."--James Grant, Wall Street Journal

"Anyone who wants to know how GDP and the SNA have come to play such important roles in economic policy-making will gain from reading Coyle's book. As will anyone who wants to gain more understanding of the concept's strengths and weaknesses."--Nicholas Oulton, Science

"Diane Coyle's new book, GDP: A Brief But Affectionate History, is a timely contribution to discussions of modern economic performance."--Arnold Kling, American

"[E]xcellent."--Adam Creighton, The Australian

"Diane Coyle's book is as good a simple guide as we are likely to see."--Samuel Brittan, Financial Times

"Coyle does good work explicating a topic that few understand, even if it affects each of us daily. A pleasure for facts-and-numbers geeks, though accessibly written and full of meaningful real-world examples."--Kirkus Reviews

"[S]mart and lucid. . . . [S]hort but masterful."--Todd G. Buchholz, Finance & Development

"[G]reat (and well-timed) new book."--Uri Friedman, The Atlantic

"In a charming and accessible new book, Diane Coyle untangles the history, assumptions, challenges and shortcomings of this popular rhetorical device, which has become so central to policy debates around the world. . . . Coyle's book is a good primer for the average citizen as well as the seasoned economist."--Adam Gurri, Ümlaut

"[I]t is interesting and important, particularly when it comes to the emphasis now given to GDP, and the inadequacies of this now time-honoured measurement of how our economies are doing. . . . With clarity and precision, she explains its strengths and weaknesses."--Peter Day, BBC News Business

"Diane Coyle has bravely attempted in a recent book to make the subject once more accessible, and even interesting."--John Kay, Financial Times

"[T]his is as engaging a book about GDP as you could ever hope to read. It falls into that genre of books that are 'biographies of things'--be they histories of longitude, the number zero or the potato--and is both enlightening and entertaining."--Andrew Sawers, FS Focus

"GDP: A Brief But Affectionate History is a fascinating 140-page book that I cannot recommend highly enough. This is simply the best book on GDP that I've ever seen."--John Mauldin

"As a potted history of approaches to quantifying national output from the 18th century onward, GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History deserves high marks. It is particularly edifying to learn about the military motivation behind the initial attempts."--Martin S. Fridson, Financial Analysts Journal

"The strongest part of the book charts the development of national accounting from the 17th century through to the creation of GDP itself and its literal and metaphorical rises and falls in the 20th and 21st centuries. . . . This is lively and surprisingly readable stuff."--Eilís Lawlor, LSE Review of Books

"Coyle has written an engaging, introductory to mid-level book on the GDP that makes sense of a statistic that hardly anyone actually understands. . . . It does not require any training in economics, but it covers many topics that even professional economists would find beneficial, including an argument that GDP is an increasingly inappropriate measure for the 21st century."--Choice

"[A] little charmer of a book."--Wall Street Journal (A Best Non-Fiction Book of 2014)

"GDP is a thought-provoking account of how the gross domestic product statistic came to be so important. . . . The book is a useful and timely contribution."--Louise Rawlings, Economic Record

"Coyle is surely right when she says that GDP is not outmoded, despite all the problems. The people who use GDP need to understand what it is and what it isn't, and to know what are its strengths and weaknesses. They should read this invaluable and accessible guide."--Bill Allen, Business Economists

"Coyle's account of the emergence and hegemony of GDP is a timely one, capturing in lucid historical detail the major conceptual weaknesses in the construction and use of GDP and the menu of alternative measures one might turn to."--Atiyab Sultan, Cambridge Humanities Review

"Coyle takes the reader on a whistle-stop tour of the development workhorse of economic modeling and analysis. . . . The book developed out of a talk by the author in 2011 and it retains the liveliness of a performance."--Central Banking Journal

"Coyle's greatest achievement is to succinctly describe the history of the concept as it emerged in the 1940s as a result of wartime politics obsessed with measuring productive capacity in an economy."--Atiyab Sultan, Cambridge Humanities Review

"Diane Coyle's eloquently written and accessible book provides a rich account of the history of GDP."--Johannes Hirata, International Review of Economics

From the Back Cover

"Diane Coyle renders GDP accessible and introduces a much-needed historical perspective to the discourse of what we measure and why. A must-read for those interested in the far-reaching impact of GDP on the global economy, just as we seek ways to go beyond it."--Angel Gurría, secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

"Countries are judged by their success in producing GDP. But what is it and where do those numbers reported on television come from? Diane Coyle makes GDP come to life--we see its strengths and its fallibilities, and we learn to understand and respect both."--Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, 2003-2013

"This is an engaging and witty but also profoundly important book. Diane Coyle clearly and elegantly explains the fundamental difficulties of GDP--and how this headline figure is liable to radical change by apparently simple changes in method. She also provides a nice treatment of alternative proposals such as happiness surveys."--Harold James, author of Making the European Monetary Union

"Well written, interesting, and useful, this book will appeal to many readers. I learned a lot from it."--Robert Hahn, University of Oxford


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 168 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (February 23, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691156794
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691156798
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (43 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #147,676 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I read GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History by Diane Coyle for three reasons: (1) to see if the book can be used as a textbook in a principles of macroeconomics class; (2) of course, to learn more about GDP and economic growth; and (3) to learn writing from an inspiring economics communicator.

Arnold Kling rightly says that economic history can be used to teach macroeconomics more effectively. GDP presents a historical narrative of the evolution of GDP, which started as a result of war, and soon became the main macroeconomic indicator. So, yes, with a few explanations to clarify concepts, one can use the book in an introductory class on macroeconomics.

The Gross Domestic Product has been criticised frequently. Critics argue, among other things, that GDP is not a good measure of social welfare, that it does not include the informal economy, and that it does not deal well with innovation. Those criticisms are justifiable and spot-on, but as Diane Coyle argues, in spite of its many handicaps the GDP is still a useful tool to measure economic performance. From the beginning GDP was not seen as a measure of social welfare, but of income and production. Of course, we need other indicators to measure welfare, but as far as income and production goes, the GDP is still useful. That does not mean that it is perfect, not at all. In fact, it needs serious modifications.

I like Diane's writing style a lot. I follow her blog closely. However, I can not tell exactly what is so attractive about her writing. She explains her ideas and arguments with an almost optimal level of complexity, no more, no less. You can look at the way she describes GNP in the book.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The complexities and the difficulties of GDP are not frequently discussed, but they are well-described here - so is the necessity for a growth measure like GDP. This well-written little book frankly discusses both the pluses of GDP as well as the minuses, warts and all. Only God knows how, but the writer explains the subject matter competently for both the layperson and the professional economist - which is extremely rare, but most welcome. This makes the book well worth reading - to both laypersons and specialists alike.
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Format: Hardcover
Gross Domestic Product is a concept so massive, so convoluted, so compromised by rules, exceptions, patches, and qualifications, that only a handful of people in the world fully understand it, and that does not include the commentators and politicians who bandy it about, daily. "There is no such entity out there as GDP in the real world, waiting to be measured by economists. It is an abstract idea." That sets the tone of Diane Coyle's excellent and sympathetic examination of GDP. Then it's on into the impenetrable forest.

Inconsistencies abound. If you care for your child, it doesn't count in GDP. If you take in neighborhood children, it does. If you paint your bedroom, it doesn't count. If you hire the kid next door, it does. Technology and technical improvements don't count much, because we don't know how to measure and incorporate them. Even in the mid 90s, we knew that technology was actually trimming inflation by 1.3%, but that was never acknowledged. This is the black hole of GDP, as tech becomes huge.

A special conundrum comes from the soaring financial sector, which makes money without actually producing anything. Accounting for that has evolved from "Alice and Wonderland" to "statistical mirages" that warp the GDPs of many nations. Financials account for nearly 8% of US GDP, but the way we account for them overstates their heft by 20-50%. For example, both borrowing and lending are considered productive businesses, and their numbers pad GDP both ways, using the same funds.

Coyle stays focused, giving us an overview that is understandable (as well as frustrating). She does it by structuring her book as history, showing how economies and GDP have evolved over eras.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
A very short book that provided an interesting overview of this much reported but little understood figure. I'm sure trained economists will find it superficial but to a layman like me it was just right.
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Format: Hardcover
Have you perhaps heard that some people question whether GDP should continue to dominate public policy? Or question whether economic growth should still be a top priority in rich countries? Well, the author of this book (DC) isn't having any of THAT nonsense, thank you very much. She offers here a well-written, very conservative defense of GDP orthodoxy, aside from a few technical criticisms at the margins. Unfortunately, the book omits some important topics, isn't entirely convincing in defending GDP, and may confuse the reader as to several points.

1. DC writes in a clear and engaging style throughout -- no small accomplishment, given the technical nature of the subject. She is especially strong when explaining some of the technicalities in the calculation of GDP, such as hedonic pricing, methods of adjusting for inflation, and purchasing power parity. Her argument about how GDP overstates the contribution of financial services was new to me, and very nicely explained.

2. However, the book's discussion of finance also omits an important fact: GDP does not include capital gains, a category comprising, among other things, profits earned on financial markets. That fact is extremely significant, because it explains how annual volume on financial markets can be many times bigger than global GDP (also unmentioned here). The same point therefore goes a long way to explaining how the wealthiest people make money and drive the world economy. In the US, nearly 50% of all capital gains are earned by the 0.1% of wealthiest people.

Perhaps DC didn't mention the connection between capital gains and GDP because she is simply not so interested in income inequality, especially within countries. (Her few passing references to it are all in an inter-country context.
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