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The Little Big Number:
How GDP Came to Rule the World and What to Do about It
Dirk Philipsen

Paperback | April 2017 | $19.95 | £14.95 | ISBN: 9780691175935
416 pp. | 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
Hardcover | 2015 | $29.95 | £22.95 | ISBN: 9780691166520
416 pp. | 6 x 9 | 10 halftones. 5 tables.
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In one lifetime, GDP, or Gross Domestic Product, has ballooned from a narrow economic tool into a global article of faith. It is our universal yardstick of progress. As The Little Big Number demonstrates, this spells trouble. While economies and cultures measure their performance by it, GDP ignores central facts such as quality, costs, or purpose. It only measures output: more cars, more accidents; more lawyers, more trials; more extraction, more pollution—all count as success. Sustainability and quality of life are overlooked. Losses don’t count. GDP promotes a form of stupid growth and ignores real development.

How and why did we get to this point? Dirk Philipsen uncovers a submerged history dating back to the 1600s, climaxing with the Great Depression and World War II, when the first version of GDP arrived at the forefront of politics. Transcending ideologies and national differences, GDP was subsequently transformed from a narrow metric to the purpose of economic activity. Today, increasing GDP is the highest goal of politics. In accessible and compelling prose, Philipsen shows how it affects all of us.

But the world can no longer afford GDP rule. A finite planet cannot sustain blind and indefinite expansion. If we consider future generations equal to our own, replacing the GDP regime is the ethical imperative of our times. More is not better. As Philipsen demonstrates, the history of GDP reveals unique opportunities to fashion smarter goals and measures. The Little Big Number explores a possible roadmap for a future that advances quality of life rather than indiscriminate growth.

Dirk Philipsen is a German- and American-trained professor of economic history, senior fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, and a Duke Arts and Sciences Senior Research Scholar at Duke University. He is the author of We Were the People: Voices from East Germany’s Revolutionary Autumn of 1989. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.


[Philipsen's] comprehensive history of the measure and its uses, which is written in a prose style that alternates between book-reportese and high Molotov outrage, compares G.D.P. to any number of villains in order to make tangible the number’s many flaws. . . . He is keyed into how a culture that once burgeoned can implode, and he is anxious about ours. As the quantitative symbol of a growth-based ideology, G.D.P., poses an existential threat to both the planet and our happiness."--Katy Lederer, The New Yorker

"Philipsen’s The Little Big Number: How GDP Came to Rule the World and What to Do About It provide[s] comprehensive and readable accounts of the history of national income and of the role of GDP in contemporary political and economic life."--David Throsby, Times Literary Supplement

"[The Little Big Number] takes the anti-GDP case even further. . . . Philipsen argues that not only is GDP a flawed statistic in need of replacing--but the whole notion of open-ended economic growth needs to go, too."--Kevin Hartnett, Boston Globe

"Some efforts are already underway, most notably the ‘Beyond GDP’ initiative by the European Commission, but much remains to be done. Philipsen’s book is a clarion call."--Seeking Alpha

"[Philipsen’s] call for a dialogue about setting new goals--sustainability, democratic accountability, and economic viability - should command our attention. So should his suggestion that we ‘break the GDP spell’ and establish measures, structures, and regulations that support these goals."--Glenn C. Altschuler, Huffington Post

"Dirk Philipsen’s The Little Big Number, couldn’t have come at a better time."--Douglas Beal, Huffington Post

"[A] provocative and insightful book. . . . The book stands on its own as a piece of economic history, but also serves as an important call for social change."--Alex Mitchell, Consumption Markets & Culture

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