Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Measuring Sucess

So a little bit ago, I posted a question about how we would measure the success or failure of our society and government. The silence was deafening. The only direct response was regarding health care, and I while it is a worthwhile area of study, it is certainly not enough by itself. Later I have received comments rejecting the concept of quantitative measurement as a means of assessment altogether. This does not work for me either.

I think the problem with settling on a set of quantitative measurements is that one will quickly discover that the most tightly held beliefs are often not supported by the evidence. Two obvious examples would be 'tax and spend democrat' and 'rising cost of living'. A review of the deficit will quickly sink the first, the consumer price index the latter.

It is simply the nature of how the brain works that we easily accept information that matches our world view, and we challenge or outright reject information that contradicts it. Humans are incredibly poor at weighing the costs and benefits of actions in a rigorous fashion; it is an ability that must be consciously and rigorously developed. Witness the popularity of video poker. A few seconds thought will make it obvious that as the lottery turns a consistent profit, the players must turn a consistent loss. And yet ask those who play and 99 out of 100 will tell you they are 'even or maybe a little ahead'. The emotional impact of winning and loosing is not a linear affect, so many small losses will be outweighed by the rare large win, even though the net over time is always a loss.

Likewise, the benefits of policies we agree with are easier to see and have more emotional impact than the costs. The opposite is true of policies we disagree with. Attached to this is the tendency to apply a binary 'good'/'bad' label to the policy. The reality is messy and unattractive; all policies have costs and benefits. There are vanishing few pure gain or pure loss actions.

So I conclude that an objective quantitative means of measuring society is necessary to make any kind of informed decision. As a matter of practicality, some of the means will slant one way, some will slant another. As long as they balance out reasonably well, the imperfections of any one indicator are not a huge problem.

4 comments:

(O)CT(O)PUS April 22, 2009 at 10:36 PM  

I think the operant word is "binary" and I could recite a few structural anthropologists and linguists on the subject. When I first read Claude Levi-Straus, my immediate thought was: "Well, of course, he is a Marxist and would see everything in terms of dialectics." But then I started to appreciate that our intellectual apparatus does see the world in simple binary terms: Blank and white, good and evil, raw and cooked, stop and go, alive or dead. Err, I was almost going to say Liberal and Conservative.

But the point is, we often miss shades of gray when our perceptions are just too "binary."

Right now, it is late here (eastern time zone), but I promise to return later and share some thoughts about accountability.

TAO April 23, 2009 at 4:49 AM  

Basically then we can safely assume that man is not necessarily a rational actor.

Politics is not about what is rational or in ones self interests but rather about emotionalism.

Thus, all the models that assume rationality or one acting in ways that are in their best interests are flawed from the start.

This probably explains why Americans can constantly believe that we lead the world in just about every category one can bring up and discount the data that refutes their beliefs.

It also makes a very good argument as to why democracy is not all that brillant of an ideal. If when you say, "Humans are incredibly poor at weighing the costs and benefits of actions in a rigorous fashion; it is an ability that must be consciously and rigorously developed" then it is only logical to say that democracy is not the ideal means of government but that an oligarchy or autocracy is better if the leaders have been trained rigeously in the area of cost benefit analysis.

I would argue otherwise as I believe that the fundamental variable that dictates what one perceives as being real is ones perspective and whether one is an optomist or a pessimist. Does one believe that one can improve and or change and then acts upon this view or does one believe that this is as good as it gets and we must defend or protect.

Pamela D. Hart April 24, 2009 at 6:20 PM  

I lose at those video poker machines ALL the time, but I keep playing. I play because it's fun, not to win. So, I balance out what I'm willing to lose before I go to the casino.

OpenMindedRepublican April 24, 2009 at 6:30 PM  

Pamela - Yeah, there is really nothing wrong with playing for fun, but the number of people I know who will tell you in absolute sincerity that they win all the time is shocking.

Pointing out that the state ain't exactly loosing money makes no impression on them.

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