Redefining Progress

            When the now infamous Exxon-Valdez oil tanker crashed in the 1980s, causing unspeakable human and environmental damage, the incident registered as a positive addition to the world economy.[1]  Framing the oil spill in such a light requires the following logic:  after the crash, untold dollar amounts were spent on the clean-up.  Jobs were created.  Local traders who may have been reliant on the flora and fauna contaminated by the spill were forced to exchange monies for goods and therefore joined the monetary market economy.  In sum, unexpected expenses called for unexpected spending.  That spending resulted in economic growth.  And, therefore, economists looked upon the Exxon-Valdez tragedy as a remarkable catalyst that inspired a boom in the world’s financial markets.

            These morbid calculations are the gruesome colors economists use to paint the latest, twenty-first century portrait of “progress.”[2]  As the definition of “progress” becomes increasingly synonymous with monetary exchange—hence wealth—those who have cultivated that narrow standard have a vested interest in making it appear effective.[3]  Two methods for maintaining this illusion that monetary wealth is the best marker are creative Gross Domestic Product (GDP) calculations[4] and state-sanctioned, consumption-inducing tax incentives.[5]  Put simply, as money surfaces from savings accounts and enters the market, an economy’s GDP rises.  In a free market—the kind created by international free trade agreements such as GATT[6] and NAFTA[7]---that constant input of cash flow is prized[8] and indicates incalculable achievement regardless of the character of the incident that spurred that so-called progress.[9]

            Destructive occurrences like the Exxon-Valdez crash, therefore, generate the absolute need for a more critical analysis of GDP calculations.[10]  Simply examining what economists include in these calculations falls short of thorough inquiry; it is equally, if not more important to look at what aspects of daily life economists exclude from the calculations.  All of the realities of peoples’ days not marked by the passing of monies from the one set of hands to another are not computed into (or out of) the GDP.  Work involving parental child care in the home or on the savannah, or walking ten miles while head-balancing a 15-pound bucket of water gathered from a communal well, according to the GDP analysts, is not included in the calculation of the nation’s economic growth.[11]  Similarly, the work of cultures and societies that privilege local, sustainable development in which foods grown communally or individually are harvested for local consumption is also an untallied contributor to economic gain[12] because none of these situations results in the exchange of—usually foreign—monies.[13]  We are also being asked to quantify the “existence value” of nature, thereby turning all aspects of life into a numerical equation.[14]

            Within this narrow framework, all monetary flow into the cash economy adds (and adds and adds) to economic growth.  Economists, in settling on this marker of progress, have decided to exclude any factors that might subtract from GDP calculations.[15]  While analysts may concede that GDP calculations stall once in a while due to recessions in general economic growth, no non-monetary factors exist to subtract from the GDP.  As a result, social problems such as poverty, the denigration of public healthcare systems,[16] meager educational standards,[17] ethnic violence[18] and environmental degradation fail to reduce the final number produced by GDP analysis.[19]  Progress has succumbed to the connotation of what can be bargained for cheapest.

            Compulsory addition accounting is aggravated by state-sanctioned tax incentives that encourage over-consumption.[20]  For example, in her article Consumerism, Advertising, and the Role of Tax Policy, Professor Mona Hymel argues that, as advertising leads to increased American consumerism, “existing federal tax laws encourage advertising through preferential tax treatment that, in essence, subsidizes advertisers.”[21]  In a broader scope, the Organisation For Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) has extensively explored the multi-faceted relationships between environmental taxes and trade.[22]                                                                     There has always been significant fear that Western-centric global machinations, whether hegemonic by virtue of military or economic forces, would transform the world into a uni-perfect, Western-dominated, homogenized, global culture.[23]  Certainly, in the wake of its path to differing continents, cultures, and peoples, the concept of Western progress has altered several aspects of daily life: education,[24] family and gender roles,[25] wealth[26] and even health,[27] the nation-state itself,[28] and the very meaning of what is “human.”[29] 

            Proselytization of capitalism—itself a religious orthodoxy—has left its mark and with it, its lexical buzzwords: progress, efficiency, competitiveness, productivity.[30]  Yet, for example, if the Protestant work ethic resoundingly makes American workers outpace their European counterparts,[31] how have we come to call or value “productivity” as the elimination of humans by technology from the self-esteem of work?[32]  Is speed appropriate to democratic deliberation?[33] 

The four horsemen of my apocalypse are called Efficiency, Convenience, Profitability, and Security, and in their names, crimes against poetry, pleasurable, sociability, and the very largeness of the world are daily, hourly, constantly carried out.  These marauding horsemen are deployed by technophiles, advertisers, and profiteers to assault the nameless pleasures and meanings that knit together our lives and expand our horizons.


I’m listening to a man on the radio describe how great it is that there are websites where musicians who have never met or conversed or had any contact at all can lay down tracks together to make songs.  While the experiment sounds interesting, the assumption sounds scary—that the complex personal, creative, and cultural collaborations of music-making could be unnecessary and you just need the digital conjunction of some skill sets.  The speaker seems to believe that the sole goal is the production of songs, sundered from the production of social ties and social pleasure.  But music has always been an occasion for people to get together—in rehearsals, nightclubs, parties, festivals, park band-shells, parades, and other social spaces.  It is often the soundtrack to bodies in conjunction, whether marching or making love.[34]


            Our understanding the distinction between price and cost is critical to sustaining a healthy quality of life.  An alternative to GDP accounting is the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI).[35]  Although cash generated is still an important component of progress measurement, the GPI adds a cost factor to the GDP measurement.  It evaluates such factors as resource depletion, pollution, long-term environmental damage, non-market transactions and income distribution.  The assertion behind this proposal is that if other methods of accounting do not factor in less tangible costs such as these, the national and international well-being will inevitably decline as those factors are increasingly ignored.  Indeed, national well-beings have declined, despite an increased GDP.[36] 

            Thus, we should no longer concede to such erroneous systems of accounting progress.  Progress should be defined broadly to account for the total well-being of every human, not simply those who have greatest access to the global markets.[37]  Even measuring simple things, like general discontent with the construction of a high rise blocking a community’s view of nature, should be factored-in as a way of providing a counter-balance.[38]  Isn’t progress really the triumph of laughter over dogma?[39]


[1]  The People Bomb:  When Will Overpopulation Explode?  (Turner /CNN Special Reports 1992).

[2] There are, however, new economic quantification movements that call for including externalities in measures of economic progress.  Adbusters: Thought Control in Economics (September/October 2009) (see Resources & Provocations); Hazel Henderson, Creating Alternative Futures: The End of Economics (1996); Stephen A. Marglin, The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community (2008); Partha Dasgupta, Economics: A Very Short Introduction (2007); Partha Dasgupta, Nature and the Economy, J. Applied Ecology 475 (2007); Partha Dasgupta, The Place of Nature in Economic Development, in Dani Rodrik & Mark Rosenzweig, Eds., Handbook of Development Economics (forthcoming 2010); Robert H. Frank, Luxury Fever: Money and Happiness in an Era of Excess (2000); Robert H. Frank, The Economic Naturalist (2007); http://www.robert-h-frank.comSee also Robert H. Frank, Why Living in Rich Society Makes Us Feel Poor, N.Y. Times Mag., Oct. 15, 2000, at sec. 6, p. 62 (Special Issue.  Spending, How Americans Part With Their Money).  Cf. Arthur C. Pigou, The Economics of Welfare (1932) (Pigouvian Taxes).

                [3]] To be fair, some wealthy entrepreneurs, Andrew Carnegie, for one, advocated that the new upper class of the self-made rich had a responsibility of philanthropy, to distribute fortunes to be put to good use, not to be wasted on frivolous expenditure.  Andrew Carnegie, Wealth (“The Gospel of Wealth”), North American Review, June, 1889, at p. 653.

[4] The People Bomb:  When Will Overpopulation Explode?  (Turner /CNN Special Reports 1992).  But see Ted Halstead & Clifford Cobb, The Need for New Measurements of Progress, in Mander 197; Frank Ackerman & Lisa Heinzerling, Priceless (2005).  This system for measuring our values is, in essence, fixed or rigged, and it presupposes that our insatiable [design] for consumption should only be measured by “cheapness.”  See also William Greider, The Soul of Capitalism (2003); Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, & Hunter Levins, Natural Capitalism (2000); Kevin Phillips, Numbers Racket: Why the Economy Is Worse Than We Know, Harper’s Magazine 43, May 2008.

[5]  See generally Mona Hymel, Consumerism, Advertising, and the Role of Tax Policy, 20 Va. Tax Rev. 347 (2000).

[6]  General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade 1994, Apr. 15, 1994, Marrakesh Agreement Establishing the World Trade Organization, Annex 1A, 33 I.L.M. 1153 (1994); Cmd 7258; 148 BFSP 759; 61 Stat (5) A3, (6) 1365; 4 Bevans 639; ATS 23 (1948); Can TS 27 (1947); SATS 5 (1949); 1 Vert A 11; Peaslee 706 [hereinafter GATT].

[7]  North American Free Trade Agreement 1993, Dec. 17, 1992, 32 I.L.M. 605; HR Doc. No. 103-159; 103 Cong. 1st Sess. (1993) [hereinafter NAFTA].

[8]  David C. Korten, The Failure of Bretton Woods, in Mander 22-23.  [Also – cite – historical connection to nineteenth century colonialism and imperialism abroad, Congo, French and Algeria, British and India.] Gyan Prakash, After Colonialism:  Imperial Histories and Postcolonial Displacements (1995).

[9] The study of political economy has long recognized capitalism’s ongoing need to expand, to seek out new sources of surplus profit as compensation for the inherent falling rate of profit that occurs within an established economy.  For a cogent analysis of the political policies of economic growth that the United States has pursued since World War II, see Robert M. Collins, More:  The Politics of Economic Growth in Postwar America (2000).

                [10]  Megan McArdle, Misleading Indicator, The Atlantic 36, November 2009; Tali Woodward, The Nature of the Fiscal World, Conservation Mag., (January-March 2009).

[11]  The People Bomb:  When Will Overpopulation Explode? (Turner/CNN Special Reports 1992).   Marilyn Waring outspokenly criticized the concept of GDP, particularly in how it excludes traditionally female work from its calculation, in her 1995 documentary, Who’s Counting?.  See also the United Nations System Accounting Standards (UNSAS), available at

[12]  Helena Norberg-Hodge, The Pressure to Modernize and Globalize, in The Case Against the Global Economy at 38-41 (Jerry Mander & Edward Goldsmith eds., 1996).

                [13] See IMF/World Bank policies such as Structural Adjustment Programs.  Suzanna Dennis and Elaine Zuckerman, Gender Guide to the World Bank and IMF Policy-Based Lending (2006),

[14]  See E.O. Wilson, What Is Nature Worth?, Wilson Q., Winter 2002; David Harvey, Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Distance (1996); FRANK ACKERMAN & LISA HEINZERLING, PRICELESS (2005); Janny Scott, An Environmentalist on a Different Path; A Fresh View of the Supposed “Wilderness” and Even the Indians’ Place in It, N.Y. Times, Apr. 3, 1999, at B7..

[15]  See Neela Banerjee, The Nation: There’s No Accounting; The Economy’s Apples and Oranges.  (In 1937, Simon Kuznets, who was later awarded the Nobel Prize for creating many of the techniques which we use today to measure economics, advocated the measuring of environmental degradation.  Until it became politically controversial and was discarded, The Bureau of Economic Analysis did so measure this degradation in its first assessments.)

[16]  Ronald J. Glasser, We Are Not Immune:  Influenza, SARS, and the Collapse of Public Health, Harper’s Mag., July 2004, at 35.

[17]  Hagit Elul, Making the Grade, Public Education Reform:  The Use of Standardized Testing to Retain Students and Deny Diplomas, 30 Colum. Hum. Rts. L. Rev. 495, 499 (1999).

[18]  See Amy Chua, World on Fire:  How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability (2003); Norberg-Hodge, supra note 71.

                [19]  Rebecca Solnit, Winged Mercury and the Golden Calf, Orion 14 (September/October 2006); Michael Shnayerson, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Throne, Vanity Fair, May 2007, at 182 (calling for the labeling on the product itself of the environmental costs of getting that product to market.)  See also Robert Repetto, Accounting for Environmental Assets, Scientific Amer., June 1992, at 94-100.

[20] See Report: Environmentally Harmful Subsidies, Challenges for Reform, OECD Publishing 2005.  As a result of a tax loophole, small-business owners and the self-employed received large tax deductions when they purchased gas guzzlers like the Cadillac Escalade, Ford Excursion, and Hummer vehicles, which qualified for the deduction precisely because of their large size.  Danny Hakim, In Tax Twist, Big Vehicles Get the Bigger Deductions, N.Y. Times, Dec. 20, 2002, at C1.  People with very high incomes frequently used accelerated depreciation as a tax shelter until those tax loopholes were closed.  Ford Fessenden, Alternative Tax Hits Home the Hardest, N.Y. Times, Apr. 15, 2007, at 14WC.  Congress repeatedly proposes fossil fuels’ subsidies for the traditional producers of oil, gas, and coal that contribute most heavily contribute to global warming. Editorial, Warming Trends, N.Y. Times, Aug. 3, 2003, at sec. 4, p. 10.  See Doug Koplow, Ten Most Distortionary Energy Subsidies,

[21]  Mona Hymel, Consumerism, Advertising, and the Role of Tax Policy, 20 Va. Tax Rev. 347, 352 (2000).  See Stephen Fishman, Tax Deductions for Professionals 313 (2007) (“Almost any type of business-related advertising is a currently deductible operating expense.”)  See also William Grieder, Citizen GE, in Mander; Gregg Easterbrook, All This Progress Is Killing Us, Bite by Bite, N.Y. Times, Mar. 14, 2004, at sec. 4, p. 5.; Alan Thein Durning, Yoram Bauman, & Rachel Gussett, Tax Shift:  How to Help  the Economy, Improve the Environment, & Get the Tax Man Off Our Backs, (NW Envt. Watch 1998);

                [22] See OECD (Organisation For Economic Co-Operation and Development) Special Reports: 1) Implementation Strategies for Environmental Taxes (1996); and 2) Managing the Environment: The Role of Economic Instruments (1994).  See also J. Andrew Hoerner and Benoit Bosquet, Environmental Tax Reform: The European Experience, (Center for a Sustainable Economy); Elisabeth Rosenthal, Motivated by a Tax, Irish Spurn Plastic Bags, NY Times, February 2, 2008,; The Eighth Global Conference on Environmental Taxation, 

                [23] Richard Barnett and John Cavanagh, Homogenization of Global Culture, in Mander 71-77 (discussing youth preferences for Western music, television, etc.); Cf. Amartya Sen, Universal Truths: Human Rights and the Westernizing Illusion, Harv. Int’l Rev., Summer 1998, at 40-43 (warning, in part, against too easily blaming western cultures for homogenization).  See also Peter L. Berger, Four Faces of Global Culture, The Nat’l Int. , Fall 1997, at 26-27; Public Citizen, Global Trade Watch, (last visited Apr. 20, 2008).

[24]  See generally Maude Barlow & Heather-jane Robertson, Homogenization of Education, in Mander

[25]  Helena Norberg-Hodge, The Pressure to Modernize and Globalize, in The Case Against the Global Economy at 42 (Jerry Mander & Edward Goldsmith eds., 1996).

[26]  Helena Norberg-Hodge, The Pressure to Modernize and Globalize, in The Case Against the Global Economy at 35 (Jerry Mander & Edward Goldsmith eds., 1996)

[27]  See generally Martin Khor, Global Economy and the Third World, in Mander  47-59.

[28]  See generally Richard Falk, World Prisms: The Future of Sovereign States and International Order, Harv. Int’l Rev., Summer 1999.  Once established, our PBWiKi will invite educators from the world at large to provide instruction materials from their culturally nuanced portfolios.

[29]  See Carl Elliot, Humanity, 2.0, Wilson Q., Autumn 2003, at 13 (“Transhumanists believe that human nature’s a phase we’ll outgrow, like adolescence.  Someday, we’ll be full-fledged adult post-humans, with physical and intellectual powers of which we can now only dream.”  What are the economic consequences of becoming a robot?).  Though their arguments are situated on quite different grounds from one another, a cadre of theorists within the humanities have for some time argued that conditions common to globalization have already created a post-human condition.  See Michael Foucault, The Order of Things:  An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1966); Katherine M. Hayles, How We Became Posthuman:  Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (1999); and Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women:  The Reinvention of Nature (1991).

                [30] The clash of continents regarding the orthodoxy of capitalism – between the United States and Europe – is aptly explored by Stephen Thed, in Europe’s Philosophy of Failure, Foreign Policy, January/February 2008, p. 54 (the author contends that European schoolchildren are taught that capitalism and entrepreneurship are savage, unhealthy, and immoral concepts).

[31]  Niall Ferguson, Why America Outpaces Europe (Clue:  The God Factor), N.Y. Times, June 8, 2003, at sec. 4, p. 3.  See Max Weber, The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1930); Russell Conwell, Acres of Diamonds (exhorting the Christian and godly duty to attain riches), also Elbert Hubbard, A Message to Garcia (originally published without title, 1899) (“don’t ask questions, get the job done”); John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government (1952); Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1976).

[32]  Jeremy Rifkin, The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market ERA (1995).  See Jeremy Rifkin, Return of a Conundrum:  As Technology Devours Jobs at an Increasing Rate, the Conflict at the Heart of the Market Economy is Becoming Irreconcilable, Guardian/UK, Mar. 2, 2004. 

Neil Postman often makes the point that when a new technology is introduced into a culture, that culture is forever and permanently changed through and through.  The change is not additive but ecological.  It permeates like a thimble full of red dye dropped into a barrel of water.  Every molecule in that barrel of water is transformed though that fact may not be immediately evident.  Similarly, if you drop the internet or the telephone or TV into an existing culture, you don’t end up with an internet plus that old culture, you end up with an utterly new culture.   See Neil Postman, Technopoly:  The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1993)See also Neil Postman, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century (1999).

[33]  Benjamin R. Barber, Uncertainty of Digital Politics, Harv. Int’l Rev., Spring 2001 (A world where everything is for sale is not a world hospitable for democracy).  See also Satish Kumar, .

                [34] Rebecca Solnit, A Fistful of Time, Orion 14 (September/October 2007).

                [35] See Redefining Progress Projects: Genuine Progress Indicator, also Catherine Rampell, Alternatives to the G.D.P., NY Times, October 30, 2008,

[36] Redefining Progress, Nation’s Economic Health Overstated by $7 Trillion,; www.rprogress.orgSee also Kumar Venkat, What Kind of Productivity Do We Need?,, Apr. 1, 2004,; Erla Zwingle, Cities, Nat’l Geogr. 70, Nov. 2002 (Series:  Challenges for Humanity).  Economic ranking does not necessarily measure a corresponding well-being quantified by longevity, education, and standard of living.  See the United National Human Development Index.  Despite being the ninth largest economy, Brazil has the highest number of armored vehicles and homicides, greatly surpassing many “developed” nations.  Bangkok residents suffer high degrees of pulmonary disease.  In Lagos, Nigeria, after three decades of oil production, the proportion of the population living in poverty has doubled).  See The Failed States Index, Foreign Policy 82 (July/August 2009).

[37] See Jonathan Rowe, Our Phony Economy, Harper’s Magazine, June 2008.  Different measurements of societal well-being have been utilized in the recent past, say, during the Nixon administration, like distribution of wealth or income across all of society as an indicative factor.  James Conaway, Vanishing America: In Pursuit of our Elusive Landscapes (2007); Rebecca Solnit, Finding Time, Orion,; Curtis White, The Ecology of Work, Orion 27, May/June 2007;  David C. Korten, When Corporations Rule the World (2001).  In the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, the king has made Gross National Happiness (GNH), rather than GDP, its priority.  Andrew C. Revkin, A New Measure of Well-Being From a Happy Little Kingdom, N.Y. Times, Oct. 4, 2005; Brook Larmer, Bhutan’s Enlightened Experiment, Nat’l Geographic, March 2008; Stephan Herrera, Healthy, Wealthy and Wise?  The Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan Wants to Show that Modernization Can Be Enlightened, Technology Review 60, August 2005; Seth Mydans, Recalculating Happiness in a Himalayan Kingdom, N.Y. Times, May 7, 2009, at Sec. A, p. 8.

                [38] To be sure, other indexes and organizations exist to calculate prosperity and measures of well-being.  See, e.g.,; Ecological Footprint of Nations,; State of the Planet, (Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development); The new Economics Foundation,; Calvert-Henderson Quality of Life Indicators,; Dow-Jones Sustainability Indexes,; Living Planet Report,; World Economic Forum Global Competitive Report,; Report to the Club of Rome,; Millennium Ecosystem Assessment,; Mercer’s Quality of Living Survey,; The Globalization Index, Foreign Policy 68, Novermber/December 2007.  See also Stephen A. Marglin, The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community (2008); Bill McKibben, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities And The Durable Future (2007); Nathan Cardinal, Adding+ Subtracting, Alternatives Journal 39 (2007); David C. Korten, Better Than Money, Yes! 37, Fall 2007; Abra Pollock, Stemming the Trickle-Up Effect: Finding Alternative Economics,; the Intercontinental Network for the Promotion of the Social Solidatrity Economy (RIPESS); Tom Turnipseed, The Big Question on this Labor Day: What’s the Economy for Anyway?,; Herman E. Daly, Relations Among Nations: How to Go Global Without Being Globalized, Orion 11, September/October 2006; Ames Esty, The New Wealth of Nations,; (territories are resized to reflect numerous conditions, e.g., sanitation, poor water, slum growth, poverty, wealth, housing, education);

                [39] Attributed to Benjamin DeCasseres.  But see Bruce Bueno De Mesquita, The Predictioneer’s Game: Using the Logic of Brazen Self-Interest to See and Share the Future (2009).