The Leading Indicators

A Short History of the Numbers That Rule Our World

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About The Book

The Leading Indicators was widely and well received as a much needed corrective to the outdated, outmoded economic figures we are accustomed. Every day, we are bombarded with numbers that tell us how we are doing, whether the economy is growing or shrinking, whether the future looks bright or dim. Gross national product, balance of trade, unemployment, inflation, and consumer confidence guide our actions, yet few of us know where they come from, what they mean, or why they rule our world.

Zachary Karabell tells the fascinating history of these indicators, which were invented in the mid-twentieth century to address the urgent challenges of the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War. They were rough measures—designed to give clarity in a data-parched world that was made up of centralized, industrial nations—yet we still rely on them today.

Today’s world is shaped by information technology and the borderless flow of capital and goods. If we follow a 1950s road map for a twenty-first-century world, we will get lost.

What is urgently needed is not to invent a new set of numbers but to tap into the data revolution that offers unparalleled access to the information we need. Companies should not base their business plans on GDP projections; individuals should not decide whether to buy a home or get a degree based on the national unemployment rate. If you want to buy a home, look for a job, start a company or run a business, you can readily find your own indicators. National housing figures don’t matter; local ones do. You can find those at the click of button. Personal, made-to-order indicators will meet our needs today, and the revolution is well underway. We need only to join it.

About The Author

Zachary Karabell is an author, money manager, commentator, and president of River Twice Research, where he analyzes economic and political trends. Educated at Columbia, Oxford, and Harvard, where he received his PhD, Karabell has written eleven previous books. He is a regular commentator on CNBC, MSNBC, and CNN. He writes the weekly “Edgy Optimist” column for Reuters and The Atlantic, and is a contributor to such publications as The Daily Beast, Time, The Wall Street Journal, The New Republic, The New York Times, and Foreign Affairs.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (December 2014)
  • Length: 304 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451651225

Raves and Reviews

“Zachary Karabell’s lively account, The Leading Indicators, is a terrific introduction to the range of statistics economists and governments use to address these questions.”

– The New York Times

“Karabell offers an engaging account of the history of these indicators, and his explanation of their flaws is both readable and useful for
non-economists trying to make sense of the barrage of numbers with which they're pelted on a regular basis.”

– The Wall Street Journal

"[The Leading Indicators] demystifies a lot of current debates, explains its subject matter clearly and shows that the major published macroeconomic statistics are neither nonsense nor conspiracy. Most people could read this book with enjoyment and profit.”

– Tyler Cowen, The Washington Post

“How did we get to the era of Big Data? Karabell…mines little known tidbits in the history of economics to explain how individuals, companies, and countries came to rely on statistics like unemployment, inflation, and gross domestic product to describe the wealth of nations….In Karabell's hands economics is no longer ‘the dismal science.’ More storyteller than analyst here, he succeeds in livening up how ‘the economy’ came to be”

– Publishers Weekly

The Leading Indicators presents a potentially dry but important topic in an engaging manner, with wit and intelligence.”

– The Cleveland Plain Dealer

“[A] lucid measurement of how the United States is faring. . . . Readers of this intelligent introduction to iconic economic indices will agree that Karabell makes an excellent case.”

– Kirkus Reviews

“Our understanding of the economy is shaped by the numbers we use to measure it. In this engaging and subversive history, Zachary Karabell tells the story of how the indicators came to rule us, who invented them, what they actually tell us, and why we need to rethink all of them if we are to make sense of the world today.”

– Justin Fox, Executive Editor, Harvard Business Review

“To any who treat the government’s economic data as if it were Holy Writ, Zachary Karabell’s book will come as a revelation. The Leading Indicators is the fast-paced story of the statistics that occupy far too large a part of our national consciousness. If you always suspected that the GDP was a snare and the CPI a delusion, Karabell’s narrative will tell you just how right you were.”

– James Grant, Editor, Grant’s Interest Rate Observer

“We live in a world of Big Data, and we are led to believe that it contains the truth of our lives. But the numbers that we use to tally our wealth, our productivity, and our very worth as human beings are based not on any absolute truth, but on the shifting sands of politics, culture, and the personal quirks of our leaders. Zachary Karabell is a thinker who understands why economics isn't a hard science. The Leading Indicators is a much needed book about economic numbers that tells us how much—and how little—they ultimately mean.”

– Rana Foroohar, Assistant Managing Editor, Time Magazine; Global Economic Analyst, CNN

“An enchanting primer on the origins and foibles of our economic numbers, marked with biting critique—and building toward the case for something new, different and adapted to the digital age.”

– James K. Galbraith, Professor, UT-Austin, and author of Inequality and Instability

“An amusing and eye-opening romp through the history of the powerful numbers, such as the unemployment and inflation rates, that influence the course of national policy. They’re not only out of date, they often point us in the wrong direction. Karabell’s surprising book shows that we don’t know what we think we know, and trillions of dollars hang in the balance.”

– Jane Bryant Quinn, author of Making the Most of Your Money NOW

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