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The Leading Indicators: A Short History of the Numbers That Rule Our World Hardcover – February 11, 2014

4 out of 5 stars 35 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Karabell traces the history of “leading indicators,” economic statistics including unemployment; inflation; trade; consumer sentiment and spending; the stock market; housing; and Gross Domestic Product (briefly, total market value of all goods and services provided within a country during one year). Leading indicators were designed with limited goals “that describe one reality known as ‘the economy’ but not all reality known as ‘the world we live in.’” In the first half of the twentieth century, leading indicators measured industrial nation-states, while now they measure service-driven developed economies and emerging world industrial economies exporting the goods of multinational companies. Karabell recommends crafting tailored indicators for specific needs using the explosion of information in this era of “Big Data.” Governments should follow the example of the U.S. Federal Reserve in using wide-ranging data and numbers to enhance analysis, many well-run companies develop their own indicators for operational decisions, small businesses need specific indicators for corporate strategy, and individuals using smartphones should access data for creating indicators relating to personal goals. Challenging book. --Mary Whaley


“Zachary Karabell’s lively account, The Leading Indicators, is a terrific introduction to the range of statistics economists and governments use to address these questions.” (The New York Times)

“Karabell offers an engaging account of the history of these indicators, and his explanation of their flaws is both readable and useful for
non-economists trying to make sense of the barrage of numbers with which they're pelted on a regular basis.” (The Wall Street Journal)

"[The Leading Indicators] demystifies a lot of current debates, explains its subject matter clearly and shows that the major published macroeconomic statistics are neither nonsense nor conspiracy. Most people could read this book with enjoyment and profit.” (Tyler Cowen The Washington Post)

“How did we get to the era of Big Data? Karabell…mines little known tidbits in the history of economics to explain how individuals, companies, and countries came to rely on statistics like unemployment, inflation, and gross domestic product to describe the wealth of nations….In Karabell's hands economics is no longer ‘the dismal science.’ More storyteller than analyst here, he succeeds in livening up how ‘the economy’ came to be” (Publishers Weekly)

The Leading Indicators presents a potentially dry but important topic in an engaging manner, with wit and intelligence.” (The Cleveland Plain Dealer)

“[A] lucid measurement of how the United States is faring. . . . Readers of this intelligent introduction to iconic economic indices will agree that Karabell makes an excellent case.” (Kirkus Reviews)

“Our understanding of the economy is shaped by the numbers we use to measure it. In this engaging and subversive history, Zachary Karabell tells the story of how the indicators came to rule us, who invented them, what they actually tell us, and why we need to rethink all of them if we are to make sense of the world today.” (Justin Fox, Executive Editor, Harvard Business Review)

“To any who treat the government’s economic data as if it were Holy Writ, Zachary Karabell’s book will come as a revelation. The Leading Indicators is the fast-paced story of the statistics that occupy far too large a part of our national consciousness. If you always suspected that the GDP was a snare and the CPI a delusion, Karabell’s narrative will tell you just how right you were.” (James Grant, Editor, Grant’s Interest Rate Observer)

“We live in a world of Big Data, and we are led to believe that it contains the truth of our lives. But the numbers that we use to tally our wealth, our productivity, and our very worth as human beings are based not on any absolute truth, but on the shifting sands of politics, culture, and the personal quirks of our leaders. Zachary Karabell is a thinker who understands why economics isn't a hard science. The Leading Indicators is a much needed book about economic numbers that tells us how much—and how little—they ultimately mean.” (Rana Foroohar, Assistant Managing Editor, Time Magazine; Global Economic Analyst, CNN)

“An enchanting primer on the origins and foibles of our economic numbers, marked with biting critique—and building toward the case for something new, different and adapted to the digital age.” (James K. Galbraith, Professor, UT-Austin, and author of Inequality and Instability)

“An amusing and eye-opening romp through the history of the powerful numbers, such as the unemployment and inflation rates, that influence the course of national policy. They’re not only out of date, they often point us in the wrong direction. Karabell’s surprising book shows that we don’t know what we think we know, and trillions of dollars hang in the balance.” (Jane Bryant Quinn, author of Making the Most of Your Money NOW)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; First Edition edition (February 11, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1451651201
  • ISBN-13: 978-1451651201
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #374,211 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
The unemployment figures do not actually tell us about the state of unemployment in a country, GDP figures do not actually give us an accurate measurement of the health of a country’s economy, and the trade deficit between the United States and China may actually be a trade surplus, according to Zachary Karabell in this book.

The book describes the history of a number of economic measurements which we now take for granted. Measurement of unemployment and national income evolved in the wake of the Great Depression, and gross domestic product took over from gross national product as the favoured measure of a country’s economy by the end of the 20th century. What we do not often realise is that these measures were subject to significant limitations at the times when they were invented, and the limitations have become more substantial over the years as the state of technology and the nature of the economy have changed.

Although the book provides a good description of the history of various leading indicators, the extent of the inaccuracies described is not entirely clear. For example, the author explains that every iPhone sold in the US adds $229 to the US-China trade deficit, and every iPad adds $275, although components are sourced from countries other than China and the actual cost of assembly in China is only around $10. However, presumably the components imported into China get counted in China’s trade accounts, so the imports and exports should cancel each other out, but the author does not discuss whether this actually happens.

The book is entertaining and informative, providing a very useful explanation of the key figures used by economists and governments.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Zachary Karabell's "The Leading Indicators" is a disappointment. The author provides a detailed history of the origin and use of today's leading economic indicators, such as GDP and the national unemployment rate, only to alert us that there are limits to single measures of national performance and that such statistics can be misused. Is there anybody alive that doesn't already know this? I doubt we need to know who first started questioning what it means to be "unemployed," and where those early statistics came from, to understand the author's concerns about the use and misuse of summary statistics.

It seems Mr. Karabell's purpose is to warn us that aggregate statistics say little about individual cases. For example, in discussing the unemployment rate he tells us that within the labor pool there are identifiable subcategories with distinct age, gender, racial, educational and regional features. So between the arbitrary criteria for who gets counted and the distillation of the data into a single number, the end result can be misleading. But before you get your hopes up for alternative indicators, check the following two paragraphs from the author's final chapter:

Example 1: "What, then, is to be done? It would be satisfying to unveil a new framework and to outline a new set of statistics that would better serve our present needs. That would have the virtue of simplicity, and it would be easy to digest. Instead of GDP, let's have a version of gross national contentment. Instead of the unemployment rate, let's have the employment-education ratio. Problems with our current numbers? Well, then, let's invent new ones." (p246)

Example 2: "No one number will suffice.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
The book lives up to its title: "The Leading Indicators: A Short History of the Numbers That Rule Our World". It covers the development and shortcomings of "headline" statistics such as gross domestic product, unemployment, and international trade. Readers will learn some eye-opening things, unless they already know the basics of what measures underlie these statistics and why many such statistics suffer from potentially misleading imperfections. For example, headline unemployment (U-3) doesn't include people who have given up looking for work; so if all workers lose their jobs and decide not to look for new jobs, the headline unemployment rate would fall to zero. The book does get a bit repetitive as it goes along, repeating its basic assertions over and over.

Bottom line: If everyone read this book, we'd have a much more informed citizenry.
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Format: Kindle Edition
When I was in college, the more liberal artsy among us tended to fulfill the science requirement for graduation through either "Physics for Poets" or "Rocks for Jocks". This book would be a good textbook for "Econometrics for Poets.". It is short, utterly non-technical and not particularly demanding on the brain. I finished it in two settings, which is unusual for a book about economic statistics. The author has clearly chosen to write at a level that the general reader with no prior background can access, and there is definitely a niche for that kind of exposition. He obviously knows much about the subject but at the same time is capable of dumbing it down enough to fulfill his objective. As such, it is a very good nontechnical introduction to the topic for someone who is seeking one.

Chapter 1 is an introduction to the compilation of census statistics through a brief summary of the Domesday Book produced to document England at the time of the Norman Conquest.

Chapter 2 is a short history of the development of the unemployment rate and the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the progressive era.

Chapters 3 and 4 comprise a short history of the creation of national income, gross national product and gross domestic product metrics told mainly by focusing on Simon Kuznets.

Chapter 5 is a short history of consumer sentiment statistics.

Chapter 6 is a short history of the creation of inflation measurements.

In each chapter the author briefly mentions some of the issues associated with the metric -- hedonic adjustments in relation to inflation; part-time and under-employment for unemployment; and activities ignored in computing GDP, for some examples.
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