28 January 2007

Lessons from the gym

If we’re not careful we become obsessive about a single particular quantifiable measure – to the exclusion of things that really matter but that are less quantifiable. It could be the exchange rate for foreign currency, our weight, or the number of kilos we can bench press. The effects can be pernicious: witness the large numbers of adolescents with eating disorders, or the athletes who sacrifice their health to win.

Does this happen for the same reason that our minds are, by default, not in the here-and-now but are apparently set to daydream? Perhaps our education is so totally verbal that we cannot handle the complexity of the present, but not being able to switch off, we focus on something simple, measurable that we can do something about.

Well, enough speculation about the why. The fact is, as individuals we do have this tendency, though it can be, thankfully, checked by our intuition, intelligence and insight.

I’m not so sure, though, about when that same focus on a single indicator bedevils the policymaking process. Government agencies, for instance, that focus on narrow numerical targets often miss seeing the wood for the trees. At the national level, the consequences can be dire. Generally there is no systematic use of indicators that reliably correlate with social wellbeing. But what fills the vacuum? Anecdotes, image, spin and inertia. Combined with the non-explicit targeting of, most usually, Gross Domestic Product, or GDP per capita – which is terrible as an indicator of social welfare.

As I see it, there are two remedies.

  • Downsize the policymaking remit. By which I mean, devolve policymaking as far as possible to a level at which normal people can tell what’s going on without depending exclusively on quantifiable indicators. Or:
  • Choose broad social and environmental indicators, that correlate accurately with social and environmental wellbeing; as against the Mickey Mouse micro-targets that characterise current policymaking. That is the principle underlying Social Policy Bonds, which apart from being more efficient at raising welfare than the current setup, would focus on outcomes. Which means that ordinary people could participate in defining them; an end in itself as well as bringing about more buy-in into social affairs.
Jonathan Rowe puts our predicament well:
The Atlantic this month cites a recent study by economists that purports to show that the suburbs actually are bastions of social cohesion,based on membership in civic groups. It is a classic case of confusing available data with reality.

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