Unmeasured benefits add to U.S. economy

This is a convenient, and probably welcome, time to think about the noncommercial aspects of our lives. I offer two distinct points.

The first is in the wake of economic forecasts that suggest the U.S. is in a period of much lower growth.

We focus our measurement of the economy on the production of goods and services. This tells us much about the world, but it also omits key elements. The gross domestic product says nothing about the consumption of an unmeasured good. If we choose to consume less of measured goods and more of unmeasured goods, these national income accounts deceive us.

If we take early retirement to look after grandkids, work only time to be more involved with our families or church, or simply work in a hobby, these things are counted as a loss to the economy. I think the evidence suggests we are at a point of significant transformation in what we consume and why.

I detest cellphones, but I love the safety and flexibility they give my family. Mobile phones have dramatically improved the lives of my family. We spend much more time together while doing lots of interesting and fun things than we could not without them. Our leisure time is far more productive because of the vast technology changes of the past two decades. This does not make it into the GDP measures.

The technology enhancements of the past quarter-century have changed our lives in many ways. Things we do away from the office or factory are far more productive. It is now far easier to home-school kids due to the Internet, and time spent outside of formal work can be far more stimulating. With the productivity of leisure rising, it should be no surprise that fewer people work at formal jobs.

The slowdown we observe might well be caused by poor measurement of the economy rather than declines in the benefit we get from the economy. Slower economic growth in the formal economy is not a problem if we value more the things we get from leisure.

And that leads me to my next economic lesson of the season. It is about the most meaningful Christmas gift I will ever receive.

Twenty-five years ago I spent Christmas deep in the Saudi Arabian desert, as an infantry soldier on the eve of war. After pulling midnight guard duty, followed by sandstorm-coated holiday meal, I led a convoy into |the tiny village of Hussayah to buy sodas and to phone home. We were unwashed, rough men, ready to do violence. But on this night, my soldiers and I were met there by an angel, a young Saudi girl, not yet 8, Muslim, offering us small pieces of cake to mark the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

Even today my eyes grow damp recalling that tiny gift and its supreme gesture. I wish that you may receive; or better yet give a gift such as that this season.

Michael J. Hicks is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and an associate professor of economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University.

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