The BEA has the 20th century economy down cold. It can tell you about personal income trends in Anchorage, Alaska, or America’s annual output of rubber products and plastics. Now the agency is putting more attention on R&D—the lifeblood of the 21st century economy—by moving it from an experimental “satellite” account into the heart of measured GDP.
GDP is the main yardstick of macroeconomics—the sum total of all goods and services produced in the country. Business R&D was never counted in that total. It was considered an expense, an “intermediate input,” that ate into profit. Intangible investments such as R&D and the creation of artistic originals have been like physicists’ dark matter: influential but invisible. As Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said in a 2011 speech, “We will be more likely to promote innovative activity if we are able to measure it more effectively and document its role in economic growth.”
The effect of the revision will be immediate. Measured GDP will get a one-time boost of about 2.7 percent when the government starts counting R&D and artistic creation as investments. (New Mexico and Maryland will get the biggest lifts.) The future growth rate will probably be fractionally higher, too. With R&D treated as an investment, measured economic growth from 1959 to 2007 would have been 3.39 percent annually instead of 3.32 percent, the BEA estimates. Bloomberg Businessweek