How to measure economies (and not get lost in the woods)

In the late 18th century, Johann Gottlieb Beckmann, a Saxon forester, hit upon the idea of systematically surveying Saxony’s forests. He dispatched trained surveyors into a tract of woodland to hammer nails into every tree. Each man carried nails of five different colours, enabling them to grade trees by size. When every tree was marked and the men emerged, Beckmann counted the coloured nails left over to calculate the exploitable resources.

Efforts to measure what goes on in the economy have a chequered history. The political scientist James C. Scott, who unearthed the example of Beckmann, points out that forest planners tried to conform to Beckmann’s theories, spacing with architectural precision trees of the same breed and age. The resulting forests were vulnerable to high winds and to disease.

The remainder of the article can be read here. Please post comments below.

The Undercover Economist: a guide

Publishing schedule: Excerpts from "The Undercover Economist" and "Dear Economist", Tim's weekly columns for the FT Magazine, are published on this blog on Saturday mornings.
More about Tim: Tim also writes editorials for the FT, presents Radio 4's More or Less and is the author of "The Undercover Economist" and "The Logic of Life".
Comment: To comment, please register with, which you can do for free here. Please also read our comments policy here.
Contact: Tim's contact address is:
Time: UK time is shown on posts.
Follow: A link to the blog's RSS feeds is at the top of the page.
Follow on Twitter
FT blogs: See the full range of the FT's blogs here.