By Susannah Roberson
Dirk Philipsen wears many hats. An economist and historian, he serves as a senior research scholar and fellow at Duke’s Kenan Institute for Ethics. This year he also takes on responsibilities as an associate research professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy.
He recently wrote a book about GDP as the world’s predominant measure of economic performance. He’s a devoted father of four children. And in his free time, he enjoys playing a vigorous game of table tennis.
Philipsen grew up in Berlin, and while he was a student at the College for Economics there, he became politically active in all sorts of ways. He involved himself in the peace and environmental movements, and was a founding member of the Green Party in Germany.
“I was trying to figure out what some of the levers might be to bring about positive change in the world,” Philipsen said.
He’s still on that quest. It’s one of the reasons he teaches, and it’s also one of reasons he wrote his book, The Little Big Number: How GDP Came to Rule the World and What to do About It.
He wanted to write about GDP because he has some problems with it. The metric is used all over the world to sum up the economic performance and wellbeing of a nation, but Philipsen noticed there are a lot of factors missing from GDP calculations.
“GDP doesn’t measure democracy, openness, freedom, equality or good race relations,” he said. “It’s completely ignorant of those things, and I think that’s a real problem.”
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At Duke, Philipsen teaches undergraduate courses on capitalism and sustainability, among other things. His writings often center around what he sees as an excessive reliance on GDP as a measurement.
For example, he points out that raising children is the most important job in terms of survival. It’s often women, rather than men, who stay at home to raise children. People who stay at home have no income, and therefore no impact on GDP. Even the women who raise children as their paid jobs consistently have the lowest incomes.
“Meanwhile, a lot of people who do jobs that are really not at all essential to our survival, like stockbrokers, make the highest income. Where’s the logic in that?” Philipsen said. “Students often think success is to become a consultant or a stockbroker, but not a daycare worker. That’s crazy.”
The GDP book was a seven-year project for Philipsen. “It was exciting because, having been involved in lots of different issues over the years, it was the point where it all came together,” he said.
That says a lot, as he’s been involved with quite a range of issues, from environmental sustainability to civil rights to education reform. He previously taught at Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia State University. For 10 years, he served as director of Virginia State’s Institute for the Study of Race Relations, which he founded in 1997. At Duke, he teaches undergraduate courses on capitalism and sustainability, among other things.
Philipsen loves being in the classroom, and working with young people. He also wants to have dialogue with the broader public, not just conversations with colleagues behind closed doors.
And he wants these conversations to be about the way policy decisions are made. Philipsen says most people think about politics and policy in very narrow terms, within the GDP regime, for example, or within capitalism.
“Generally speaking, the choices we have in politics and public policy are like choices between Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi. And I don’t like either,” he said. “I want to make people realize that there’s also orange juice and vodka and all these other things out there that are not part of the conversation.”
Philipsen strives to expand the mental frameworks people apply to politics and policy all over the world. But right here in Sanford, he advances his cause through teaching, empowering his students and helping them start to think on their own terms.
“When I can really rearrange the furniture in people’s heads and get people excited about ideas and possibilities, and watch them find their own voice—that’s success for me.”