Measuring nothing and saying the opposite: Stats in the service of the Scottish independence debate

I was half-heartedly considering writing about the ways that GDP can be twisted to back up any argument, when what should come along but this unedifying spectacle.

The Unionists (No campaign) have produced a league table of GDP, showing how far down Scotland would be. So, the argument goes, you should vote for them. This is, however, irrelevant to whether Scots would be better off. The GDP would drop because it would be a small country. GDP is the total sum of economic activities. If you have fewer people, you do less. That doesn’t make you poor, as Monaco or the Vatican City will tell you. If Manhattan declared independence from the rest of the USA, its GDP would go down. If Scotland not only stayed in the UK but convinced North Korea to join too, the UK’s GDP would go up. On this logic, every time a border is removed, people immediately get rich.

Meanwhile, the Separatists (Yes campaign) have produced a league table of GDP per capita, showing how far up Scotland would be. So, the argument goes, you should vote for them. This is, however, irrelevant to whether Scots would be better off, despite being a far less bad guess than GDP in toto. It tells the individual voter (let’s call him Mr Grant) practically nothing about whether the Grants would be better off, because that depends on a million other factors. Small countries with some very wealthy people, relying on foreign investment, will have inflated GDP per capita. It’s just the same thing kids learn in primary school now: when there are outliers, the mean is not so useful.

Anyway, the whole measure is used to form arguments about wellbeing, which is just nonsense. Otherwise all our ex-colonies would be kicking themselves at trading the jackpot of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha rule for silly stuff like identity and self-determination. (Except the USA, Canada, Australia and Ireland, who have higher GDP per capita than us and so are presumably happier. We should try to join them instead, as that will make us happy – though they will feel sad when we arrive.) No wonder there are still plenty of people who, having asked what I do for a living, gleefully say “lies, damned lies…”

PS: This Langtonian doesn’t get a vote because I live in London – that “giant suction machine” – and here’s a great post at Forbes about the UK joining the USA and becoming the lowest of the low. 



  1. Thanks Robert for this post. I would say that people like to speak about GDP as they assume it is felt as an objective measure of wellbeing, so to easily persuade voters. But that’s just a way to hide less rational motives lying behind some political positions as, say, independence. But as humans beings we are rather embarrassed when we realize that also instinct leads our choices. Yet, this is what normally happens either in politics and in other social contexts.

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