Statistics about economic activities are critical to governance. Measurements of growth, unemployment and inflation rates, public debts – they all tell us ‘how our economies are doing’ and inform policy. Citizens punish politicians who fail to deliver on them.
FickleFormulas integrates two research projects at the University of Amsterdam that run from 2014 to 2020. Our researchers study the origins of the formulas behind these indicators: 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.
Which factors shape the formulas?
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. In FickleFormulas we ask: which social, political and economic factors shape the formulas used to calculate macroeconomic indicators?
Talking to the people who live and breathe them
In our quest for answers we mobilize scholarship and expertise scattered across academic disciplines. We will reconstruct expert-deliberations of past decades, but mostly we want to learn from those who actually design macroeconomic indicators: statisticians at national statistical offices or organizations such as the OECD, the UN, the IMF, or the World Bank. For us, understanding macroeconomic indicators is impossible without talking to the people who live and breathe them.
An academic and a practical face
The FickleFormulas project has both an academic face and a practical one. As scholars we are intrigued that macroeconomic indicators are so much of a social-scientific blind spot, while they stand so central in how we run our societies and planet. As citizens, we feel the mission to create awareness among policymakers and the wider population of the political choices that are built into economic indicators like unemployment estimates and inflation measures.
Essential to understand
We neither believe that indicators are plain wrong, and that we have accurate alternatives, nor that pressing our societies into spreadsheet columns inevitably generates bad policy. Governance by numbers has its faults, but for the foreseeable future it will have to remain part of our toolbox. Collective decisions – about pensions, environmental policies or job creation – require that we simplify the infinitely complex world in which we live. Numbers are indispensable to that task. The point therefore is not to do away with them, but to improve our understanding of their origins, biases, limits and unseen effects.
Funding and Grants
Our research is generously financed by the European Research Council (ERC Starting Grant ) and by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek, Vidi grant [016.145.395]).