06 October 2010

Numbers have limits

The dietary guidelines for Americans should focus on whole foods and eating patterns rather than individual nutrients, argue Dr Dariush Mozaffarian and Dr David Ludwig in the Journal of the American Medical Association pointing out that this is not a radical approach at all, but a return to more traditional, time-tested ways of eating. ‘The greater the focus on nutrients, the less healthful foods have become,’ they write. Quoted in GI News
As society grows more complex and centralised, we see metrics taking over from intuition, instinct and insight. Much as we might try to define well-being in terms of numerical indicators, they are always going to be imperfect at best and in conflict at worst. We might, for instance, target an indicator like literacy for instance but, in doing so, transfer resources away from infant mortality, say, in such a way as to reduce overall social well-being. It's a difficulty for the Social Policy Bond approach, but it's also a difficulty with the current approach to policymaking.

The bonds do have the merit of forcing a focus on what policy is out to achieve, and to express these goals in terms of objectively verifiable numbers. That, in turn, would focus attention on those metrics that are inextricably linked to well-being. Lofty sounding goals ('punching above our weight', 'making us more secure', 'safeguarding the auto industry', 'saving the family farm') would be seen right from the beginning for what they are: distractions - and often very expensive distractions. A bond regime would probably then see more emphasis on safety-net measures: it is for the most disadvantaged that numerical indicators (of income, nutrition, literacy, for instance) most closely correlate with well-being. It would also show a sharper focus on reducing the probability of catastrophe (via Disaster Prevention Bonds, for instance) because, unlike under the current system, the precise nature of the catastrophe need not be specified in advance for funds to be devoted to its mitigation.

The limitations of metrics could function as a useful discipline. They would tend to concentrate government interventions on those policy areas where they can do most good: helping the disadvantaged and insuring against catastrophe. Government could limit itself to those areas without issuing Social Policy Bonds, of course. But they don't.

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