This is the last in the recent series of excerpts taken from Ha-Joon Chang’s Economics: The User’s Guide. Chang is an economist at Cambridge University (his personal non-academic website can be found here) and specialises in development economics. He has also written a number of popular books, some of which aim to debunk many of the myths of mainstream economic discourse.
The User’s Guide is one such, aimed at the lay reader rather than academics, and engages in a pluralist introductory approach to economics. I have therefore chosen a number of quotes over the past few months which stood out for me and which I felt were worth sharing. Here is Chang on p.453-5:
“Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the German writer (Faust) and scientist (Theory of Colours), once said that ‘everything factual is already a theory’. This is something to bear in mind when looking at economic ‘facts’.
Many would assume that numbers are straightforward and objective, but each of them is constructed on the basis of a theory. I might not go as far as Benjamin Disraeli, the former British Prime Minister, who quipped that ‘there are lies, damned lies, and statistics’, but numbers in economics are invariably the results of attempts to measure concepts whose definitions are often extremely contentious or at least debatable.
This is not just an academic quibble. The way we construct economic indicators has huge consequences for how we organize our economy, what kind of policies we implement and ultimately how we live our lives.
This applies to even the most basic figures that we take for granted, like GDP or the rate of unemployment. The exclusion of household work and unpaid care work from GDP has inevitably led to the undervaluation of those types of work. GDP’s inability to take into account positional goods has directed consumption in the wrong direction and made it an unreliable measure of living standards for rich countries, where those goods are more important. The standard definition of unemployment underestimates the true extent of it by excluding discouraged workers in the rich countries and the under-employed in the developing countries. Naturally, these types of joblessness have been rather neglected by policymakers.
All of this is not to say that numbers in economics are all useless or even necessarily misleading. We need numbers to be able to get the sense of the magnitude of our economic world and monitor how it changes; we just shouldn’t accept them unthinkingly.”