Varför mäter vi ekonomin så som vi gör?

Intressant forskningsprojekt vid Amsterdams universitet: “Fickle Formulas: The Political Economy of Macroeconomic Measurement“.

Det rör frågor som luftats här i inlägg som rör prisindex och ekonomisk statistik, även om detta forskningsprogram tycks sikta in sig på en mer övergripande, internationell nivå.

We have rough ideas of what economic growth, inflation, trade balances, productivity and so on should mean. But for each of these the devil is in the detail:
How should health and education services, often provided by or subsidized by governments, show up in GDP statistics? How should people who work only a few hours per week but would like to work more, show up in unemployment figures? Do pension promises constitute government debt? And how should inflation statistics deal with changes in the quality of everything from vacuum cleaners to iPhones over time? Such seeming details quickly turn into major holes in our measurements. /…/
Macroeconomic indicators and the way we calculate them are political, even if they pose as hard, objective numbers.

why do we measure our economies the way we do? After all, it is far from self-evident how to define and measure economic indicators. Our choices have deeply distributional consequences, producing winners and losers, and they shape our future, for example when GDP figures hide the cost of environmental destruction.
Criticisms of particular measures are hardly new. GDP in particular has been denounced as a deeply deficient measure of production at best and a fundamentally misleading guidepost for human development at worst. But also measures of inflation, balances of payments and trade, unemployment figures, productivity or public debt hide unsolved and maybe insoluble problems.
Macroeconomic indicators stand central in economic governance and its political contestation. Measurements of growth, unemployment, inflation and public deficits tell us ‘how economies are doing’. At the ballot box citizens can punish politicians who fail to deliver on these indicators. And the indicators are often integral to policy through inflation-indexation of wages or hard rules on permissible deficits.
In contrast to their air of objectivity, it is everything but self-evident how these indicators should be defined and measured. Our measurement choices have deeply distributional consequences: they produce winners and losers. They shape our future, for example when GDP figures hide the cost of environmental degradation. So why do we measure our economies in the way we do?

Detta förefaller som viktig forskning med ett helhetsgrepp som tidigare har saknats, även om dess makroekonomiska perspektiv behöver kompletteras med undersökningar av hur statistikproduktionen fungerar på mikronivån, där SCB-tjänstemän tvingas fatta egna beslut om hur förändringar i varors kvalitet ska räknas om i penningvärden. Då handlar det inte om internationellt standardiserade riktlinjer, utan om den ekonomiska statistikens inbäddning i en föränderlig kultur.

Fickle Formulas presenterar sin metodologi som en trestegsraket: först vill man kartlägga hur de ekonomiska mätformlerna har utvecklats över tid och hur de skilt sig mellan olika länder, därefter jobbar man med att intervjua ansvariga experter vid bl.a. EU och Världsbanken som varit delaktiga i den internationella standardiseringen. Det sista momenten är intressant: resultaten omsätts i kvantitativa tester, där man kan visa i siffror hur olika mätpraxis kan resultera i vitt skilda förståelser av hur ekonomier utvecklas.

Två artiklar som projektet hittills har levererat:

Daniel Mügge är professor i “politisk aritmetik” vid statsvetenskapliga institutionen i Amsterdam. I sig ett intressant ämne för en professur.

William Petty (1623–87) formerade “political arithmetick med utgångspunkt i en kvantitativ, empiriskt inriktad metod. För honom var statistik något som skapades inom ramen för ett politiskt projekt, inte en sammanställning av förment neutrala data.

Århundradet efter utvecklades “political economy” av upplysningsmän som Adam Smith. Den politiska ekonomin tog sig an ekonomin på helt annat sätt än den politiska aritmetiken. Särskilt när vi kommer till David Ricardo, har det ekonomiska vetandet blivit deduktivt, med utgångspunkt i vissa teorier om människans nyttosträvan. Så har det förblivit inom nationalekonomin. Men man har inte kommit undan behovet av att testa modellerna mot någon form av verklighet. Denna verklighet levereras till nationalekonomerna av en annan yrkesgrupp, statistikerna. Den politiska aritmetiken lever vidare i form av en oftast teoribefriad statistikproduktion, som sedan 1950 bara har blivit allt mäktigare. Till skillnad från Petty, uppfattar vår tids statistiker sin verksamhet som objektiv och opolitisk. Och ekonomerna tar dem på orden.

When contemporary policy is to be underpinned by empirical data, the aim is not only to make that policy more effective, but also to give it an objective basis. Hard data, so the idea, can de-politicize policy. It can help draw a clear line between political choices – whether by prince or parliament – and policy applications.
This division does not hold. However far you zoom in, you can rarely separate the measurement of social phenomena from our judgments and abstract ideas about them. How could you measure school performance, drug abuse, poverty, development, gender equality, standards of living and just about any other dimension of social life without making big definitional choices first? This problem becomes only more stubborn when we concentrate on economic variables – inflation, growth, unemployment – which might seem to have a more objective basis. There, too, the devil is in the detail. What counts are production? What is a quality improvement rather than a price increase? How do we distinguish between idleness as a choice and involuntary joblessness?
It is here that modern day evidence-based policy has forgotten – or consciously ignores – its roots in political arithmetic, an openly normative political project.
In essence, evidence-based policy is political arithmetic in self-denial: policy instruments and their application are infused with political values, and these political charges belie the veneer of objectivity of which evidence-based policy prides itself.

Vid universitetet i Warwick hålls ett årligt panelsamtal med forskare inom IPE (international political economy) och i år var ämnet just frågan om den ekonomiska statistikproduktionens politik. Medverkande var Daniel Mügge, Shirin Rai och Peter Newell. Samtalet finns på video.

29 kommentarer ↓

#1 COPYRIOT | Tre mått, 1: Intelligens on 23 April 2017 at 4:21 pm

[…] Varför mäter vi ekonomin så som vi gör? […]

#2 COPYRIOT | “Indexkritik och ekonomisk historia” on 4 May 2017 at 3:32 pm

[…] Varför mäter vi ekonomin så som vi gör? […]

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