Twenty-five: A tool for understanding global goals and statistics
Version of 31 January 2007
This document is to help people understand some international goals, such as the United Nations’ Millennium Goals, and some numerical claims about human progress, particularly in economics.
The idea is to help resolve some misunderstandings, ambiguities and puzzles. Clarity about what is being said, and the basis for what is being said, might help overcome some disagreements about past outcomes of policies, and future policy directions.
Some distinctions I make below are conceptual. The presence of a word in the list is not meant to imply that what it refers to is measurable.
For instance, it is important to understand whether someone is claiming to have measured
a) the level of people’s consumption, or
b) the adequacy of their consumption.
Since people don’t agree about the value of different foods, people are unlikely to agree about what adequate consumption is. Also, what counts as consumption in a broader sense is a bit subjective. I consume air, whose quality is important to me. I “consume” the park where I walk. I consume knowledge, some which might help me live longer. I consume water, but of what quality? How much dirty water is of the same value as clean water?
So we might think that any claim to have measured the adequacy of people’s consumption as a whole is false. Still, it may be useful to distinguish the concept of “level” from the concept of “adequacy” in order to understand what is behind the words of a researcher or politician. To ask a social scientist whether they are claiming to have measured the level of consumption or the adequacy of consumption may be useful. To ask a politician whether they are aiming at higher levels of consumption, or higher adequacy, may be useful as well.
As in many areas of life, what may first seem complex can be understood more easily by grasping central principles. In this case, as in many areas of social science, a key element is imagination. Another is empathy.
Perhaps many people are frightened by statistics not just because of the numbers, but because of the words. If you see an abstract noun, try and develop a way of understanding what it means in real life. A discussion about “consumption” isn’t fundamentally about some complex thing in a mysterious machine called the economy. It is supposed to refer to real life, so you can ask yourself, or others, what kinds of things it is supposed to refer to in real life. It is more important to understand what is being discussed than to try to improve on something badly defined.
Consumption amount, or level, is a different concept from consumption adequacy, and both are different from consumption expenditure. That may all sound obvious, but in economics surveys on what people spend are sometimes erroneously described as data on consumption, and then erroneously described as poverty statistics. What you spend (expenditure) is not what you consumed (consumption), and neither of these are what you lack (poverty).
As I type these words, I am imagining real people. I do not think it is possible to think about social science meaningfully in any other way.
The aim of this document is to help people decode economics and some other social science. Behind politicians’ statements about “poverty” going up or down there are real facts (as well as, perhaps, some real exaggeration), and this document may provide pointers to understanding what the facts are. The facts are about real people, and the person who can imagine some of them doing different things as the abstract nouns change, may have a good grasp of what is important without knowing anything technical.
When you are faced with a large-scale social science goal or statistic, the following may be helpful: