Writings by Matt Berkley on the theory and practice of large-scale social science


Request to BBC for corrections on global poverty
6 December 2012.

Time to end the myth of official poverty measurement?
Written evidence to the UK House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee inquiry "The economic impact and effectiveness of development aid".   July 2011.

World Bank Research Director’s response to Matt Berkley
Dr Ravallion here misleadingly claims to have “real poverty” trends even though he does not know what the poor received for their money.   I had pointed out his lack of data on food price inflation.  He uses national inflation rates for all items, not for poor people’s items.  October 2009.

Possible link between errors in theory of economics and the financial crisis
"To cite consumption expenditure statistics as indicating prosperity or poverty is to mistake consumption (in the sense in which non-economists would use that word) with spending….To the extent that parasitic activities were counted as productive in conclusions about trends in prosperity, a similar error might be thought to have contributed to the financial crisis."
8 October 2009.

25: A tool for understanding global goals and statistics
Quick way of assessing politicians’ goals and claims.   Version of 31 January 2007. 

Benn and UN experts differ over global food needs
The UK Secretary of State claimed global poverty trend without looking at food needs as babies grow into adults.  22 February 2006.

A non-economist's view of some World Bank aims, reporting and policy research
Traditional macroeconomists’ claims about prosperity and policies have structural biases against long life, cheap food, and ownership of land.  2004.

The survival error in social science goes beyond economics  
An error in some Millennium Goal indicators may reveal inadequacy in social science education.  5 February 2006

Social science and government aims  
Proposed standards for large-scale goals and research.  Explains basic distinctions sometimes ignored in key reporting and policy advice about starving people.  Examples are: income vs profit; prices vs cost of living; rise in average vs average rise; etc.  Standards are necessary for meaningful discussion of future aims and past evidence.   2006.

Five axioms, four puzzles and four suggestions on hunger in the human species 
Puzzling features of global statistics  - such as discrepancies in progress between Millennium Goal indicators - may be partially due to social scientists’ errors.  Axioms may be needed for social scientists.  (2004)

Discoverer of global poverty error calls for statistics on survival 
People who used per capita statistics, such as economists talking about “dollar per person per day” for Millennium Goal indicator 1, failed to take into account that average food needs are rising because the proportion of adults is going up.   Article in Addis Tribune, week of 28 November 2003.

Thoughts on the adequacy of social science
Correspondence and other documents 2000-3.  With quotations from others.  

An error in the “poverty reduction” debate and in traditional economic analysis 
Error is to claim to have added up individuals’ progress among the poorest while ignoring death rates.  3 August 2000.

Inflation and poverty  
Challenges part of the idea, common among economists, that income measures profit.  2003.

Economics is not utilitarian  
Economists need to learn difference between “the average rise” and “the rise in the average”.   Contributor “pqwo” is Matt Berkley.  2002.

Economics of survival  
Letter to Professor Jeffrey Sachs as Chairman of the World Health Organisation Commission on Macroeconomics and Health. 
Explains that survival data are needed for adding up progress of individuals.   11 April 2001.

New draft list of standards for large-scale goals and social science reporting
Similar list to “25” with more detail.  21 January 2006.

Statistics and survival   
Letter to editor of the Economist pointing out the almost universal survival error in large-scale economics.  October 2001.

Why macroeconomics is not utilitarian  
Longer article from 2003 on the survival error.

New directions in development economics: How to make the Millennium Goal on poverty effective, 2003

The wealth of persons
Documents from 2003 with some information about me, and possibly a few things I no longer believe.

Humanity and social science




Are economists' mistakes killing people?

In 2000 I was stunned to find that the accepted procedure in economics was to claim to know average outcomes for the poorest people in the world without looking at how many survived.   This idea was used both for reporting progress and for recommending policies.   The average rises if the poorest die.

A similar problem affects several Millennium Goal indicators, within and beyond economics.  In some countries average incomes rose while life expectancy fell due to AIDS.   The average rise is not the same thing as the rise in the average.  

Also, economists and governments, in highly influential documents, sometimes say they have data on economic benefits to the poorest without looking at any relevant prices.  Millennium Goal indicators suffer from this problem. 

These and other errors have been widespread in international development policy discussions among academics, journalists, politicians and charities.

The existence of the errors may help explain:

a) failure on many Millennium Goal indicators,
b) why the poverty indicators are "ahead" of many others, and/or
c) why in a world of plenty many people do not have enough to eat.

It would perhaps seem at least irresponsible to base policies towards the poorest on income or spending statistics without considering, for instance,

i) what people received for their money,
ii) whether their debt levels went up or down,
iii) asset levels, or
iv) any assessment of what they needed.