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(Mis)leading Indicators

Why Our Economic Numbers Distort Reality

Yuriko Nakao / Courtesy Reuters

Economic numbers have come to define our world. Individuals, organizations, and governments assess how they are doing based on what these numbers tell them. Economists and analysts loosely refer to statistics measuring GDP, unemployment, inflation, and trade deficits as “leading indicators” and subscribe to the belief that these figures accurately reflect reality and provide unique insights into the health of an economy. Taken together, leading indicators create a data map that people use to navigate their lives. That map, however, is showing signs of age. Understanding where the map came from should help explain why it has become less reliable than ever before.

None of today’s leading indicators existed a century ago. They were invented to measure the economies of the industrial nation-states of the mid-twentieth century. In their time, they did so brilliantly. The twenty-first century, however, is proving more challenging to measure. Industrial nation-states have given way

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