What Is Economic Growth?

Economic Growth Explained

This illustration shows the effective measurements of economic growth, including real gross domestic product (GDP), the World Bank uses gross national income to measure growth, and most countries measure economic growth each quarter.

The Balance / Evan Polenghi

Economic growth is an increase in the production of goods and services over a specific period. To be most accurate, the measurement must remove the effects of inflation.

Learn why all countries want economic growth, how growth is measured, and which factors drive production.

Definitions and Examples of Economic Growth

Economic growth is the increase in the value of an economy's goods and services, which creates more profit for businesses. As a result, stock prices rise. That gives companies capital to invest and hire more employees.

As more jobs are created, incomes rise. Consumers have more money to buy additional products and services, and purchases drive higher growth. For this reason, all countries want positive economic growth. This makes economic growth the most-watched economic indicator.

How Does Economic Growth Work?

Gross domestic product is the best way to measure economic growth because it takes into account the country's entire economic output. GDP includes all goods and services that businesses in the country produce for sale. It doesn't matter whether they are sold domestically or overseas.

GDP measures final production. It doesn't include the parts that are manufactured to make a product. GDP includes exports because they are produced in the country. Imports are subtracted from economic growth.

Most countries measure economic growth each quarter.

The most accurate measurement of growth is real GDP which removes the effects of inflation. The GDP growth rate uses real GDP.

The World Bank uses gross national income instead of GDP to measure growth. It includes income sent back by citizens who are working overseas. It's a critical source of income for many emerging market countries like Mexico. Comparisons of GDP by country will understate the size of these countries' economies.

What GDP Does (and Does Not) Include

GDP doesn't include unpaid services. It leaves out child care, unpaid volunteer work, or illegal black-market activities. It also doesn't count the environmental costs. For example, the price of plastic is cheap because it doesn't include the cost of disposal. As a result, GDP doesn't measure how these costs impact the well-being of society.

A country will improve its standard of living when it factors in environmental costs. A society only measures what it values. 

Similarly, societies only value what they measure. For example, Nordic countries rank high in the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report. Their budgets focus on the drivers of economic growth which are world-class education, social programs, and a high standard of living. These factors create a skilled and motivated workforce.

These countries have a high tax rate. But they use the revenues to invest in the long-term building blocks of economic growth. Riane Eisler's book, “The Real Wealth of Nations,” proposes changes to the U.S. economic system by giving value to activities at the individual, societal, and environmental levels.

This economic policy contrasts with that of the United States. It uses debt to finance short-term growth through boosting consumer and military spending. That's because these activities do show up in GDP. 

The Phases of Economic Growth

Analysts watch economic growth to discover what stage of the business cycle the economy is in. The best phase is expansion. This is when the economy is growing in a sustainable fashion. If growth is too far beyond a healthy growth rate, it overheats. That creates an asset bubble which is what happened to the housing sector in 2005-2006. As too much money chases too few goods and services, inflation kicks in. This is the "peak" phase in the business cycle.

At some point, confidence in economic growth dissipates. When more people sell than buy, the economy contracts. When that phase of the business cycle continues, it becomes a recession. An economic depression is a recession that lasts for a decade. The only time this happened was during the Great Depression of 1929.

The chart below shows the different phases of the U.S. economy from Q4 2005 through Q1 2021.

Causes of U.S. Growth

The United States has an abundance of the four factors of production. These are land/natural resources, labor, capital equipment, and entrepreneurship.

The United States’ large landmass compares to those of Russia, Canada, and Australia. But it has more natural resources than these countries. The best of these are:

  • Tillable soil in the Great Plains often called the breadbasket of the world
  • A temperate climate
  • Fresh water, lakes, and rivers
  • Large deposits of oil, coal, and natural gas

Canada and Russia are thwarted by a cold climate. Australia is dry.

These natural resources attracted labor. As a result, the U.S. labor force is large, skilled, and mobile. It responds quickly to changing business needs. The large and diverse population provides a home-grown test market. It gives domestic companies experience in knowing what consumers want. This has given the United States a comparative advantage in producing consumer products. As a result, almost 70% of what the country produces is for personal consumption.

Economic growth has also been driven by productivity gains. That measures how much each hour of worker time produces in output. Its free-market economy encourages technological innovations. 

All of these give U.S. companies an advantage in exporting. As a result, the United States is the world's second-largest exporter. It has allowed the country to excel in producing the fourth factor of production, capital equipment. These include computers, semiconductors, and medical equipment. It also includes industrial machinery and equipment.

The U.S. services industry is also innovative. The most successful are financial services, health care, and intellectual property such as computer software.

Ways to Spur Economic Growth

If a country is not blessed with the factors of production, it must find other ways to spur growth. Governments want to increase growth because it increases tax revenue. Growth allows businesses to hire workers, increasing their income. When people feel prosperous, they reward political leaders by re-electing them.

The government stimulates growth with expansive fiscal policy. It either spends more, cuts taxes, or both. Since politicians want to get re-elected, they use expansive fiscal policy to stimulate the economy.

But expansive fiscal policy is addictive. If the government keeps spending more and taxing less, it leads to deficit spending. It works for a while but eventually leads to higher debt levels. In time, as the debt-to-GDP ratio approaches 100%, it slows economic growth. Foreign investors stop investing funds in a country with a high debt ratio. They worry they won't get repaid or that the money will be worth less.

Governments should then be careful with expansive fiscal policy and should only use it when the economy is in contraction or recession. When the economy is growing, its leaders should cut back spending and raise taxes. This conservative fiscal policy ensures that economic growth will remain sustainable.

A nation's central bank can also spur growth with monetary policy. It can increase the money supply by lower interest rates. Banks make loans for auto, school, and homes less expensive. They also reduce credit card interest rates. All of these boost consumer spending and economic growth.

Key Takeaways

  • Economic growth is the increase in the value of an economy's goods and services over time.
  • Real gross domestic product is the best way to measure economic growth, because it removes the effects of inflation.
  • The government stimulates growth with expansive fiscal policy by spending more or cutting taxes.
  • Over time, expansive fiscal policy can lead to deficit spending, higher debt levels, and slowing economic growth.