@nadia is just back from Techfestival, and she tells me she had an interesting conversation with an old acquaintance, @btincq (hello again, Benjamin!). Part of it revolved around indicators to measure impact.
I have been hoping that ethnography-at-scale via SSNA could integrate, if not replace, the indicator paradigm. Which, frankly, I do not believe in anymore, after being part of the intellectual effort to “port” cost-benefit analysis to environmental externalities in the 1990s. This was spearheaded by UCL, who created a whole research center around it (I used to hang around it as a grad student), the World Bank’s Global Environmental Facility and others.
Intellectually, experimental psychologists blew us right out of the water. We were trying to get people to assess their own willingness to pay for, say, avoiding the extinction of some type of frog in Madagascar, or lowering the PM10 content by 10%, and they showed us very convincing evidence that we could never trust our results. And anyway, market allocation only reflects social optima under very restrictive assumptions, that are never met in practice.
In terms of impact, CBA had precious little. Environmental taxes and caps-and-trade left the economy running (and polluting) much like before.
Later on, James Scott made a convincing case for why we are so fascinated by scalar indicators. According to him, they are propelled by the modernist ideology that was so successful in underpinning the coalescing of modern states. States discovered they became more powerful if they could superimpose administrative ordering to reality. This worked wonders when it came to “money and men”, levying taxes and conscripting soldiers. But:
- It worked wonders for the states. For the people… not so much.
- As soon as it touched more complex systems (with the invention of scientific forestry in the late 1800s, in Germany), the systems pushed back (managed forests collapsed due to lack of biodiversity, etc.).
Modern states have created a demand for scalar indicators (GDP, ROI, the modern central bankers’ short-term discount rate etc.), which correspond to scalar “control knobs” under their control (keynesian state deficit, money supply etc.). But, according to Scott, this has more to do with their in-built thirst for administrative ordering than with their drive to appreciate what is really going on in complex systems like the economy or the global environment. In the worst case scenario (Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture), administrative ordering has sought not to describe reality, but to change it, with violence, if needed.
Last year I finalized a rather bleak document, called the Black Briefing, in which I put together these elements into a critical appreciation of government, and the part played by indicators in it. Nadia was curious about it, so here it is.