Discussing economists’ reliance on measures of growth and GDP, Joel Mokyr asks:
So you go to somebody who is about to have surgery and you ask him, How much would you demand to be paid if I took out your appendix without anesthetizing you, without putting you to sleep? Nobody would agree. The sum would be infinite. What can anesthesia contribute to GDP when it was introduced in the 1850s and 1860s? Russ:Could not be very much. Guest: Nothing. It’s very small. But that is exactly the kind of thing we fail to account for in our calculations. So that’s why I gave that whole list of things; and we could make this list infinitely large. It is the small things that actually don’t amount to an awful large part of our income and product that actually have improved life a great deal and that we really wouldn’t want to do without any more.
From Russ Roberts’ interview with Mokyr at Econtalk. The quote was first brought to my attention by Arnold Kling.
How to encourage release of data?
“Open data” and “open government” have become buzzwords in recent years, but are often conflated. Mark Headd at the Civic Innovations blog refers to the “Open Data vs. Open Government” debate, which he considers an issue of data for transparency vs for “operational” needs. He emphasizes the need to keep in mind that the original objective of the open data movement was transparency, and warns about getting lost in bus schedules, etc.
As an example of data for transparency he gives the City of Philadelphia’s release of complaints against Philadelphia police officers. Most probably agree that police complaints are not a good thing and might provide clues into bad behavior. However even in this case one should be careful about stressing the transparency/accountability angle, since this easily creates the conception that the goal is to find wrongdoers, whereas what should be the goal is to learn. If there are systematic factors affecting complaints, it would be valuable to learn about them. And even in the absence of these, a complaint does not imply a presumption of guilt, that is for other investigations to determine.
If someone fears being subjected to unfair criticism, that is a legitimate motive for non-cooperation.
Two collections of interesting urban government datasets can be found here.
Chris Blattman rants against the resistance to trying to estimate cost-effectiveness that he has encountered in the aid world. One thing he writes about is the “we do not experiment on people” argument (counter: there are always some who gets the stuff and some who do not).
Another expression of reluctance to measurement that I have encountered is: “We understand that we should be held accountable to donors, but why the need for such tight control? Don’t they trust us?” But this gets wrong the rationale for measuring, which primarily is to learn about the effects of what we do in order to do it better. Even if you are not accountable to anyone, measurement may help you learn what you do best and to improve.