Back to the future

As an OECD “veteran”, I was delighted to see that “human progress” is now on the OECD agenda (see If you compare the OECD strategy to emerge from the oil-shock recessions of the 1970s (the McCracken Report) to the OECD Strategic Response to the Financial and Economic Crisis of today, you can see that in three decades the OECD has been transformed.

But I sometimes wonder whether the pace of change has not been so fast that the OECD is losing its organisational memory. If so, this could be a danger to its professional comparative advantage: professional rigour and political impartiality. Take the question of “indicators of progress” raised by the Stiglitz Report. In the 1990s, the OECD undertook a vast exercise on “social indicators” to come to grips with the quality of economic growth. Even “happiness” indicators–a current OECD endeavour of considerable importance– came under scrutiny.

Then there is the wider view of the sources of economic growth necessary to come to grips with the issue of human progress. It may be that “human capital” and “social capital” can now be measured, according to a former chief economic advisor of the OECD, but it should be realised that this is founded on pioneering work on education in the 1960s.

Next, there is the central question of the knowledge economy. Science and technology as a motor of economic growth, but also as a source of ecological and societal risks, has a long history in the OECD. The culminating point was the analysis of the new socio-economic paradigm driven by pervasive technologies, bringing [Joseph] Schumpeter (“creative destruction”) and [Nikolai] Kondratiev (“long economic waves”) into OECD analysis. None of this would have been possible without statistical indicators of R&D and the technological balance of payments between countries.

Finally, let us not forget either that the Club of Rome was born in the corridors of the OECD!

In a nutshell, the transmutation of quantitative economic growth into human progress is the global challenge ahead. To rise to that challenge, the OECD could draw on a long history of professional analysis.

Ron Gass
92410 Ville d’Avray

©OECD Observer No 276-277 December 2009-January 2010

Economic data


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