Book Review: ‘How Numbers Rule the World: The Use & Abuse of Statistics in Politics’

Go Lean Commentary

How Numbers Rule the WorldThe below news article is a Review of the above-cited book; it highlights many of the same approaches being used in the publication Go Lean … Caribbean for the introduction and implementation of the Caribbean Union Trade Federation (CU). This book embraces the concepts of agile or lean methodologies to measure and manage progress in the region. Thus the name Go Lean. The Federation will lean-in to best-practices for capturing, computing, and measuring good economic and consumption data.

The source book by Lorenzo Fioramonti focuses on the use and abuse of statistics in the field of economic measurements, or econometrics. He asserts that the aggregate numbers are so critical that they “rule the world”. Due to this power, there is a basis for abuse, and far too often bad numbers have been used to exploit good intentions. The Go Lean book serves as a roadmap for the 5-year implementation of the CU. This requires exact econometric measurements from the outset, and thusly organizational structures will be embedded with the capabilities to facilitate this mandate. See the review here:

Book: How Numbers Rule the World: The Use and Abuse of Statistics in Global Politics. Lorenzo Fioramonti. Zed Books

Review by: Stuart Astill

GDP drives our economies. Stock market indices flood our media and national debates. Statistical calculations define how we deal with climate change, poverty and sustainability. But what is behind these numbers? In this book, Lorenzo Fioramonti sets out to show how numbers have been used as a means to reinforce the grip of markets on our social and political life, curtailing public participation and rational debate. Stuart Astill finds it to be a well written book, blending together knowledge from different fields into a coherent and readable whole. Of interest to economists, statisticians and especially those studying all aspects of power and politics.

During my time as a government statistician I had literally no idea that I was not, as many people thought, an oxymoron, but rather I was a tautology. I have discovered amongst many other things, thanks to Lorenzo Fioramonti‘s book, that statistics were originally created for the express purpose of governing and reforming the state, hence the ‘stat’ part of the name.

However, the title of the book, “How numbers rule the world”, is much closer to describing the content than is the subtitle, “the use and abuse of statistics in global politics”. Fioramonti’s main concerns are economists and, perhaps even more, the people who ask questions of economists and statisticians. He intelligently explains how he despairs of people who abuse their technical

knowledge or their advantageous position to turn the world to their own ends rather than the common good. This is not surprising: the author holds a Chair in Governance at the University of Pretoria and applies governance thinking through his work on topics around development, alternative economies and social progress measurement.

This book is consequently largely about power, rather than numbers: it illustrates a subset of abuses of power that have numbers at their heart. It is in some ways a psychopath’s guide to bullying the world by numbers – pretending that everything is ‘rational’, ‘independent’ and ‘objective’ and building fortresses of power around these intentional misrepresentations. In a provocative and fascinating first introductory chapter Fioramonti outlines his take on the world of ‘official’ numbers – perhaps best summed up where he says “Experts who use numbers have become the guardians of [this] social trust… citizens, elected representatives and other stakeholders… are held hostage by experts…”

The main chapters are quite specific techno-politico-historical investigations into four areas; ‘New global rulers: the untameable power of credit rating’, ‘Fiddling while the planet burns: the marketization of climate change’,

‘Measuring the unmeasurable: the financialization of nature’ and ‘Numbers for good? The quest for aid effectiveness and social impact’. He concludes with ‘Rethinking numbers, rethinking governance’. The whole is well written, blending together knowledge from different fields into a coherent and readable flow with a good number of ‘light bulb’ moments.

As a slight criticism from a purist, Fioramonti occasionally blurs the undeniable neutrality of mathematics and the more qualitative issues that necessarily sit around it. Economics and, to a slightly lesser extent, applied statistics consist of assumptions first and foremost, plus mathematics. I would have preferred to have seen clearer isolation of elements that are unquestionably objective and true – there is only one way for a statistician to calculate where the 90th percentile lies and only one way for an economist to carry out a simple linear regression. What Fioramonti is discussing is not just mathematics, but numbers in the real political world that sit as the filling in a sandwich. On either side of the pure mathematical filling is the sometimes rotten bread. In statistics we have on one side the definition of the statistics under consideration and the selection of the methodology that will be used – on the other side a slice of presentation and selective highlighting (or subtle downplaying). In economics, even more crucially, the fundamental assumptions that define the model (the most famous of which is the General Equilibrium, or ‘free market’ model) make one slice of the bread, while the presentation and choice of weighting empirical evidence with pure theory form the other.

Mathematics is the neutral servant of the assumptions but the assumptions can and should be stated and debated independently. I have always argued that the crucial step in analysis is to come back to our clearly stated assumptions and test them in view of our results against the real world. We must embrace a qualitative depth even in the most apparently quantitative pursuits. Professor Fioramonti has shown in a passionate and convincing way the global importance of this aspiration. His unarguable clarion call is for clarity, transparency and widespread, gentle and constructive skepticism.

I would add that we must make a great push for wider numeracy and understanding of scientific philosophy. In our world it is possible for a senior public servant to say “I don’t do numbers”, despite ‘analysis and use of evidence’ being one of their core competencies. As long as the public and the politerati do not have the skills to engage with (note, not in) quantitative analysis we cannot escape the traps that are so vividly described by this book.

Another lesson illustrated clearly by Fioramonti in this book is to embrace ambiguity. From a practitioner’s point of view it is crucial to consider how integrity can go hand in hand with progressing the use of numbers in a beneficial way. I was particularly taken by the chapter ‘Numbers for good? The quest for aid effectiveness and social impact’ which illustrates Fioramonti’s theme particularly well, showing how the undeniable power of numbers to reduce the inconceivable reality of the world to manageable proportions can lead to dangers, especially when exercised in the realm of human behaviour. The sharpness of his argument is summed up when he says that “the complexity of social relations is lost through the cracks of mathematical algorithms”.

His dismay at models being ignorantly lifted from the world of business and planted in non-profit development sectors is clear and well evidenced. There is a wonderfully familiar feeling to a quote in the chapter on aid effectiveness where the author is commissioned by his development-sector client to “improve their impact assessment tools”. Fioramonti offers them a coherent and balanced strategy with a methodology that is sensitive to the needs of the client and, hopefully, inclusive and beneficial to those in the developing countries. The CEO of the commissioning organisation listens and then baldly states: “Dr Fioramonti, there must have been a misunderstanding… we want you to develop one number which can tell us if what we do works or doesn’t. As simple as that.”

To have integrity, practitioners must recognise the right of commissioners of work to voice such a demand, whilst to the best of their capability working to a conclusion that, at worst, does no harm. At best the practitioner’s conclusion improves the world, moves forward the client’s understanding and improves the shared body of knowledge. Not easy when there are practitioners out there with less integrity, ready to take money in exchange for work that may do harm.

The author shows us in the historical section of this chapter the devastating scale of the misguidedness (my polite phrase!) that can occur when poorly defined economic growth becomes the key measure of development; natural resources are over-exploited, countries grow, but fail to adequately develop democratically, in human capital terms or in the most basic health, poverty and human rights areas. Even when/if aid makes it to the correct destinations it may well merely be used to prove someone’s (flawed) economic theory. Philanthropic ventures, the author argues, are often backed by the kind of people (technocrats, those from the business world), who like their money to be spent according to simple methodologies with hard numbers that ought to be seen as widely discredited given the events of the last financial crisis.

However deep the numbers can take us they cannot take us to the true problem, which is also the heart of the solution: power. In the end it seems that most of the problems in this book come down to something simple and very human: desperation for certainty combined with a need for simplicity in a confusing world. The challenge then is to move forward constructively and honestly while responding to and understanding that impossible desire.

In the Go Lean book, there is an advocacy “10 Ways to Measure Progress” (Page 147), detailing how the CU will manage the mission to make the Caribbean a better place to live, work, and play. The roadmap posits that this effort is a journey, not just one act. Therefore this effort is to be optimized with advanced process management methodologies to ensure CU goals are being accomplished; the stakeholders must therefore measure the progress. The key to this effort will be the federal structure of a Commerce Department with the primary role of harvesting demographic and econometric data. The roadmap adopts a Trade philosophy branded as SHIELD (Strategic, Harvest, Interdiction, Enforcement, Logistics and Delivery). The CU will install Project Management Offices in every Executive Branch Department to ensure a lean culture of quality delivery and accountability. This mission is highlighted at the outset of the Go Lean book, in a Declaration of Interdependence, with the following statement:

xxiv. Whereas a free market economy can be induced and spurred for continuous progress, the Federation must install the controls to better manage aspects of the economy: jobs, inflation, savings rate, investments and other economic principles. Thereby attracting direct foreign investment because of the stability and vibrancy of our economy.

There are other numbers that are important in the management of the Caribbean regional economy, numbers that measure the capabilities of the economic engines and the quality of Caribbean life. In particular, these are the numbers that are compiled and evaluated by credit reporting agencies and “failed-state” assessors. The Go Lean roadmap details action plans to improve these metrics: “10 Ways to Improve Credit Ratings” (Page 155) and “10 Ways to Improve Failed-State Indices” (Page 134).

Now is the time for the Caribbean region to lean-in for the changes described in the book Go Lean … Caribbean. The benefits of this roadmap are very alluring, that with the measured progress, and appropriate course correction, the Caribbean region can emerge to a $800 Billion economy (up from $278 Billion based on 2010 figures). These are just numbers, yes, but as Lorenzo Fioramonti pointed in in the foregoing reviewed book, these ”… Numbers Rule the World …”

Download the book now Go Lean … Caribbean.

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