The Leading Indicators | Zachary Karabell

Summary of: The Leading Indicators: A Short History of the Numbers That Rule Our World
By: Zachary Karabell

The Flaw in Global Trade Data

Global trade statistics struggle to keep up with the changing nature of manufacturing, services, and education. The 2008 intellectual property revisions to the national accounts were just the beginning of an ongoing effort to correct trade data distortions. While the US started collecting statistics on trade in services back in 1986, official reports on deficits with countries like China still only include goods, ignoring important surpluses in areas like services. This inaccuracy in trade statistics could create a distorted view of the US employment problem and give rise to incorrect narratives about China’s trade practices. Improving trade statistics and incorporating more detailed information about the manufacturing process could help to create a more accurate picture of global trade realities, revealing potential surpluses where deficits are currently reported.


Dive into the fascinating world of economics and discover the historical significance and impact of leading economic indicators in the book summary of The Leading Indicators: A Short History of the Numbers That Rule Our World by Zachary Karabell. Explore how these carefully constructed numbers play a vital role in public-policy decision making and have evolved over time to keep up with society’s shifting priorities. Learn about important concepts such as unemployment measurement, Gross National Product (GNP), Gross Domestic Product (GDP), trade statistics, and the effects of globalization on these metrics.

Economics as a Science

The book highlights how economic information has transformed economics from a philosophy to a science, with leading economic indicators being crucial to public-policy decision making. These indicators reflect policy makers’ understandings of economic activities, and changes in activities necessitate changes in indicators. The book also explores the contentious issue of whether domestic work should be counted as employment and output, showcasing the scope and granularity of the issue at hand.

From Unemployment to Economic Stability

This summary narrates the history of measuring unemployment in the United States, from being virtually nonexistent to becoming a critically important economic indicator. The Great Depression brought to light the need for measuring unemployment and creating policies to address it. Although Hoover’s policies were insufficient, FDR’s New Deal policies were centered around the creation of jobs, and his appointee, Frances Perkins, played an instrumental role in developing the Department of Labor’s data collection infrastructure. The monthly jobs report, released in 1959, has since become a crucial element in shaping policies related to labor practices, minimum wage, and unemployment insurance. Despite its significance, the report is inherently limited by sampling errors. However, its contents are kept under tight security since they can significantly impact economic markets. This summary emphasizes the importance of unemployment as an economic indicator while providing insight into the history and limitations of data collection and its impact on economic policies.

National Accounts: The Foundation of Economic Indicators

National accounts’ systematic data collection began to measure the economy more fully in the aftermath of the Great Depression. American economist Simon Kuznets pioneered this work by developing national income statistics, used by FDR in his policies. Since then, national accounts data has evolved to incorporate changes in production mix and services, reflecting the global economy. The United Nations continually updates the methodology to include more information, such as the value of intellectual property and domestic work. The data collected serves as the foundation for economic indicators, providing coherent and necessary information for policy-making and understanding the overall economy. Without national account data, governments would lack the clarity needed to assess the economy, making it impossible to analyze and learn from significant events like the Great Depression.

The Birth of GNP

In 1942, during World War II, Simon Kuznets and John Maynard Keynes collaborated to create Gross National Product (GNP) to measure domestic and international production by American-owned businesses. GNP excluded production of foreign-owned companies in the United States. The purpose of GNP was to determine the levels of defense spending and tax increases that the US could handle without causing devastating domestic shortages. The American policymakers used GNP and Keynes’ aggregate demand concepts to inform price control policies that helped maximize sustainable output of the American economy. Thanks to astutely calculated wartime output and empirically sound New Deal policies, the US became a superpower within three years.

Power of GDP

The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has become a symbol of success and failure worldwide. Even though GDP does not include off-shore production, it is a critical economic indicator for governments. The US adopted GDP to measure the overall national economy in 1991, and it fits well with other national indicators such as employment, inflation, and housing. GDP was also used in calculating the 2009 stimulus policy, but it’s not a perfect science. Analysts needed a measure of the gap between actual output and potential output, resulting from full employment. The employment indicators didn’t contain data about job losses averted by stimulus policies, so experts had to approximate the gap. Creating the unemployment rate was also not a simple task of counting. GDP has the power to win or lose elections, but it’s not a complete picture of financial well-being.

Want to read the full book summary?