THE one certainty about the global economy at the moment is that it stands in the early stages of a digital revolution sure to make the world of 2118 as unrecognisable to us as our own world would be to the people of 1918. A difference between us and them lies in the fact that rapid change is being built into our expectations, prompting the more forward-looking to ask whether we have the right conceptual equipment to understand and adapt ourselves to the processes at work.

Right in the front rank of this vanguard is my esteemed colleague Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp. In his column for The National last week he asked: “How do we design a new economic system that will actually work?” I think he overdid the extent to which the present one is not working. After all, most of us get up in the mornings and go off to our jobs, come home in the evening to a healthy and on the whole happy family, all secure in our property and freedom. Outside the home, we are in general safe on the streets, while a range of public services caters for our collective needs, some better than others.

Of course, certain of our fellow citizens have fallen outside this reassuring framework, but they are few. Unemployment is at historically low levels, below five per cent of the labour force, and Scotland has a higher proportion of households in work than the UK as a whole.

It’s easy to recite the basic statistics, yet at the same time hard to ignore a growing unease about them, a sense that they are far from telling the whole story. This feeling has been around for a while, proof enough that it is not just a passing fad. It helps to explain why the SNP Government, soon after it came into office in 2007, set about widening the range of social material that it monitors so as to give us a truer picture. It soon started producing measures of inclusiveness and sustainability in addition to boring old Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the conventional calculation of the economy’s total expenditure. The results have still been rather unflattering to public policy in Scotland, but that is a column for another time.

One interesting thing to note from the World Economic Forum (WEF) last week in Davos is that this questioning of conventional wisdom has spread even to the elite who benefit most from it. The Forum commissioned its own experts to survey obscure facts about every country on the planet, all brought together in an Inclusive Development Index (IDI). It is inclusive in the sense that it draws on a far wider set of indicators (or proxies for them where basic information is lacking) than the familiar sort of economic analysis ever does.

The Forum heard that part of the malaise is the over-reliance by economists and policy makers on GDP as the prime measure of national economic performance. It includes only the current production of goods and services rather than their long-term contribution to broader socio-economic progress, as signalled in incomes, security, quality of life and condition of the labour market.

An extended period in which governments have preferred growth to equity has brought yawning divergences in income and wealth, worsened by the general slowdown after the crisis of 2008 and the sluggish recovery from it. As a result, no country has been able to enter the virtuous circle where growth is strengthened by being shared more widely and is generated without unduly straining the environment or burdening future generations.

Fair enough, I said to myself when I read of this. I’m not always as reactionary as my columns may make me sometimes appear, and I’m in favour of anything that can deepen our economic understanding of the world we live in. So I went into the IDI document to have a look. It contains a stupendous mass of information, much more than I can hope to do justice to here. I’ll confine my comparisons to three countries, the UK, Germany and the US. There are no separate figures for Scotland, but we can assume it is roughly in line with the UK except in some instances I’ll point out as I come to them.

The three comparator countries respectively have populations of 65, 80 and 322 million. But their role in the global economy is not in proportion to that. The UK was the traditional commercial pioneer and still trades 57 per cent of its GDP. Today, this is far exceeded by Germany with its huge volume of exports, equivalent to 88 per cent of GDP. The US is much more self-sufficient, and trades only 28 per cent of GDP – so what is Donald Trump beefing about?

Despite the disparate size of the three countries, certain social features are similar. Life expectancy for Germans is 81, for Brits 80 (for Scots, with our bad habits, a couple of years less), for Americans 79 and starting to fall – drugs, drink and meagre access to healthcare are taking their toll of the poor.

Average years of education are 17 for Americans and Germans, 16 for Brits, but perhaps a little higher for Scots. Inequality is about the same in all three countries, and so is “gender development” (relative status of the sexes), as measured by the WEF’s own indices. So also is the employment ratio, the proportion of the total population of working age that is in a job. All this suggests to me that advanced capitalist countries inevitably show the same sort of socio-economic structure (in line with standard Marxist theory). Redistributive measures have never had much effect, and are never going to.

Now for differences. The WEF tried to measure security, as part of the good life, but found little in the way of quantifiable data. One small indicator is the homicide rate, at 0.9 per 100,000 of population for the UK and Germany but at a whopping 4.1 for the US. On use of digital technology the Brits are best, with 92 per cent having access to the internet compared with 88 per cent of Germans and 75 per cent of Americans. Brits are also more virtuous in their carbon emissions, which run at three-quarters of the German level and at half the US level. Taking together all the constituents of the IDI index, they give Brits an average annual income of $38,000 (Scots are close to this figure), Germans $45,000 and Americans $53,000.

What strikes me is that when you include the extra bits and pieces of IDI they add little to the picture we get from any of the existing international league tables. The US still has the biggest economy in the world, Germany is the powerhouse of Europe and the UK just about clings on to its status as an important player on a global scale. There may be two reasons IDI does not tell us much more than we know already. One is the lack of robust input. It is 150 years since we started constructing the concepts that go into GDP, which in its present state – it is still being improved – represents the brainpower of thousands of economists. IDI has nothing like the same intellectual back-up, and perhaps needs another 150 years to build it. Even then we may find that, as a matter of fact, GDP tells us all we really need to know about most economies, and the supplement from IDI is minor.

“How do we design a new economic system that will actually work?” asks Gordon MacIntyre Kemp. I say don’t bother, because we know the answers already. Just cut taxes, lift the burden of regulation; human initiative, human ingenuity will do the rest.