Tuesday 23 September 2014

Tesco and the great technocratic secret

The news that Tesco, formerly the Great Satan of anti-monopoly campaigners, have overstated their estimated profits by £250m is rather extraordinary – but only logical, given the way the politics of measurement is developing.

They have succumbed to the spirit of the age, and the besetting sin of Westminster and Whitehall: the idea that figures will always represent reality.

If you believe that, and unfortunately many of us do, it is but a short step to the obvious conclusion: if you change the figures, you can change reality.

You can see why some public service managers and their voluntary sector contractors fall under the delusions of this idea. The whole system encourages them to do so – their success or failure depends on them subverting the cage of outcome figures created for them.

Years so, a New Economics Foundation colleague of mine overheard the voluntary sector people counting attendance at a public meeting say: “If any couples come in, put them both down as women – we don’t have enough of those.”

Out of these small lies, big lies hatch. But both are symptoms of the basic mistake – that you can measure progress objectively like this.

You can see why politicians fall for it. The English doctrine of only doing the minimum required to achieve an administrative outcome leads inexorably to this idea – why do we have to actually reduce unemployment, after all, when all you need to is manipulate the definition?  Or so they whisper to each other.

You can see why financiers fall for it.  Change the figures, change the belief and you move markets, and there is a residial idea that prices are always real.

Collectively, we seem to have fallen under the spell of the utilitarian idea that everything can be measured, every problem calculated, every issue resolved by data. The truth is that numbers are indeed hard and objective, but they are chained irrevocably to definitions, which are endlessly malleable.

This is the great truth about evidence-based policy which the Masters of the Universe have convinced themselves that only they understand.

Data, statistics, evidence – those are for the hoi polloi – they know the truth: there is no objective reality.

Actually, this is just as much of a delusion, but this quiet understanding leads to the present corruption – manipulated data in public services, Libor rate manipulation, tweaked definitions in every area of public life.

One answer is to set up trusted institutions – monetary policy committees, NICE, offices of budget responsibility and so on – but those soon get dragged into the controversy. They remain influenced in a subtle way. How could they not be?

The other, more commonsense idea, is to remember that there is no way out of the human business of making complex judgements. We can’t escape it – and the sooner we wake ourselves up from the utilitarian Big Data dream and start doing so again, the sooner we might be able to take some control of our own destinies again.

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