In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde noted how ‘people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.’ Over a century on, and more so now than ever, we continue to obsess over numbers in all aspects of life – often losing sight of what really matters in the process.
As the world begins to wake up to the idea that, 80 years on, GDP is not and never was a credible yardstick for measuring economic strength, Lorenzo Fioramonti’s new book How Numbers Rule the World has been garnering attention.
Here we bring you a selection of reviews, interviews and author articles from the last four weeks. Consider this your reading list to a more enlightened view of how numbers rule the world . . .
For another chance to hear Fioramonti discussing the ruling elite’s obsession with numbers on BBC Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed, visit the Radio 4 website.
Writing in Open Democracy, Fioramonti examines ‘The politics of numbers in the age of austerity’.
“Most politicians are fond of dishing out data as they are fully aware that the sense of neutrality these numbers provide makes people more willing to accept welfare cuts. Indeed, governance by numbers de-politicizes decisions. The appearance and design of such statistics are structured around the notion of evidence. When we see a number, we perceive certainty. Factual information. Numbers are not like words, which require interpretation. Numbers are a source of authority in so far as they reveal truth. And truth cannot be disputed. But have you ever wondered what these numbers actually mean?”
Read the full article here.
Fioramonti on why the BRICs’ pursuit of GDP growth with little or no investment in human, social and natural capital does not bode well for the future of the world economy: The BRICS of collapse?
Alice Bell (@AliceBell) of the New Left Project met with Fioramonti to ask him about the forces that lead us to rely on numbers.
“Numbers are fundamental. I don’t think human beings can progress without measuring. We measure every day. Carpenters need measurements to make furniture, doctors need thermometers to measure our fever. Measurement is part and parcel of our understanding of reality. What is happening, however, in contemporary governance is that we live through a phase where our political decisions are surreptitiously anchored to measurements that are extremely controversial and yet presented as neutral. As a consequence, our political debate is minimised because the numbers we use to make decisions are already forgone conclusions. These selective measurements provide us with a very narrow range of options, thus limiting our real freedom. For instance, no government or society is really able to think of progress outside of GDP. So it’s not about numbers per se, it’s about how these numbers are being made and integrated into policy making.”
Read the full interview here.
Writing in the LSE Review of Books, ex government statistician Dr Stuart Astill says that How Numbers Rule the World is valuable “to those studying all aspects of power and politics”:
“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. . . We must embrace a qualitative depth even in the most apparently quantitative pursuits [and] 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 scepticism.”
Read the full review here.
And finally, in this the 80th birthday of the world’s most powerful numbers, Fioramonti looks at the rise and rise of GDP – and why its time for it to retire.
“Much more than a number, GDP has since come to represent a model of society, thereby influencing not only economic, but also political and cultural processes. Our geography, our cities, our lifestyles are defined by the GDP circle of production and consumption. GDP has also colonized the lexicon of governance and the distribution of power at the global level. International clubs such as the G8, or the G20 have been defined according to their members’ contribution to the world’s gross output. The concepts of ‘emerging markets’ and ‘emerging powers’ refer to a nation’s current and projected GDP growth, as well as the ‘ambivalent’ distinction between the developed and the under-developed (or developing) world.”
Read the full article here.