Why the world’s richest countries are not all rich

The writer is co-chair of the technical advisory group of the International Comparison Program. Paul Schreyer, OECD acting chief statistician and co-chair of the group, contributed

In March, just as the world was reeling from the onset of the pandemic, the International Comparison Programme completed its most recent computations. This dry-sounding statistical exercise collected prices in 176 countries, using them to calculate purchasing power parity exchange rates. The lack of media attention on the results is a reminder that measures of economic activity come second — unless they relate directly to threats to health.

Yet even in a time of plague, comparable international accounts are required for essential measurements, including cross-country comparisons of gross domestic product, living standards and global measures of poverty and inequality. And here the latest computations have important things to say.

The new accounts bring good news and not so good news. The good news is that the new 2017 data are not particularly newsworthy. For example, the economies of China and the US were of similar size in 2017, as they were in 2011. (The former is only two-thirds the size of the latter measured at current exchange rates.)

The not so good news is that globalisation and transfers of…

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