Widely used since the mid-twentieth century, GDP (gross domestic
product) has become the world's most powerful statistical indicator
of national development and progress. Practically all governments
adhere to the idea that GDP growth is a primary economic target,
and while criticism of this measure has grown, neither its
champions nor its detractors deny its central importance in our
political culture. In The Power of a Single Number, Philipp
Lepenies recounts the lively history of GDP's political
acceptance-and eventual dominance. Locating the origins of GDP
measurements in Renaissance England, Lepenies explores the social
and political factors that originally hindered its use. It was not
until the early 1900s that an ingenuous lone-wolf economist revived
and honed GDP's statistical approach. These ideas were then
extended by John Maynard Keynes, and a more focused study of
national income was born. American economists furthered this work
by emphasizing GDP's ties to social well-being, setting the stage
for its ascent. GDP finally achieved its singular status during
World War II, assuming the importance it retains today. Lepenies's
absorbing account helps us understand the personalities and popular
events that propelled GDP to supremacy and clarifies current
debates over the wisdom of the number's rule.
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