05 March 2019

The metrics of tyranny

In our complex, populous societies we're not going to escape the use of metrics as indicators of social well-being. Social Policy Bonds aim to target targets that are meaningful to ordinary people. They therefore need metrics that are carefully devised, robust, verifiable and, preferably, easy and cheap to monitor. A Social Policy Bond regime, ideally, would use reliable metrics in a considered, coherent manner. There are dangers in taking metrics as ends in themselves, in using them incoherently, and in ways that conflict with people's well-being. Unfortunately, that's the direction in which we're moving. Having read The tyranny of metrics by Jerry Muller I've written about the limitations of metrics. I've also mentioned Campbell's Law. An article in the Economist does much to justify Mr Muller's and my skepticism:
Take the World Bank’s annual comparison of business regulations around the world. One country stood out in its latest ranking: China, which had languished in 78th place the previous year, jumped to 46th. India seemed to have improved, too, rising 23 spots, to 77th. Those remarkable ascents have less to do with the ease of doing business in those places than with their governments’ determination to achieve good grades. Some 40 people work in a Chinese government unit dedicated to improving its World Bank score; perhaps 200 toil in India’s. At least 60 countries have teams that focus on the index. (My emphasis)  Life and society are increasingly governed by numbers, 'The Economist', 23 February
Our societies aren't going to return to the times when policy is made for groups of 150 (see Dunbar's number). It follows that metrics will be the means to determining how well society is doing. Currently our governments rely on a motley array of narrow, short-term, Mickey Mouse micro-targets, including the de facto target of Gross Domestic Product, with their many flaws, some of great consequence. A Social Policy Bond regime, by contrast, would channel people's goals and expertise into answering fundamental questions: what should we target? What are the essential elements of social and environmental well-being? Where do we, as a society, want to be heading? Our obscurantist political systems allow our rulers to duck these questions and distract us all with spurious arguments about ideology, personality, image and sound bites.

The tyranny of metrics metrics of tyranny

It gets worse. In some societies metrics are already explicitly weaponised (from the same article):

In China, for example, Zhima Credit, a popular private service, measures “personal characteristics”, “online behaviour” and “interpersonal relationships”, among other things. A high rating entitles people to a fast-track visa for Singapore.

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