We Are What We Measure

The media runs a business story every so often about how the growth in consumption of oil or some other commodity was down some enormous percentage. Yeegads! It has a graph and everything, so it must be true. It takes a while to extract some facts from the dour headline, storyline, graph, and article itself. Underlying it all is that world consumption of the item had risen once again. It just hasn’t risen as quickly as it had the year before. No mention as to whether the previous year was a historical anomaly, or what the continued growth in consumption might mean. But the tone in these articles is always glum. The news? That growth has taken a nose-dive through one statistical unit measure, one year-over-year. Why exactly would we present a story about one of our planet’s more pressing matters (consumption and resources) in this way?

The old adage: “You get what you measure!” might well apply to these “rate of change” statistics. Might the media be debasing our sense of real value, our connection to real issues? No longer content with its moniker as “dismal science”; or even to measuring a real and even-handed relation between real people, their needs and their means; economic reporting and statistics are now rife with sophisticated “moving averages” and tracks of trends. The up and down of it all no longer seems to matter. It’s whether the up is more upper! It’s not the getting from here to there, or even the speed at which we’re moving. It’s about the trend, the acceleration! Our economic attention span has shifted from planning the quality of our future to planning for speculation. The year-over-year is becoming the thing itself, because the only decision is whether to buy or sell.

There are very few places in a mature and stable system (whether an eco-system, an economy or a community) where a focus on acceleration, where a perception that moving is standing still, is a good thing. A start-up company, an emerging market, a child’s learning; sure, we can understand that zoomier is better.

But once up to speed, is it logical or even safe to continue this focus not just on growth, but on rate of growth?

When forecasts predict fewer cars on the road, That’s a “negative growth” in yesterday’s terms, and a practical free-fall on the year-over-year growth chart, if we use our handy “change in growth” graph. But do all of these statistical trends, no longer climbing so optimistically, really spell doom for our quality of life?

Grow or die!! Growth is inevitable! No growth means no jobs for our children, no increase in tax revenue. These are the mantras of planning, chanted religiously at shareholders’ and council meetings alike. But perhaps, just perhaps, these are the chants of the speculators rather than the true stakeholders.

Those who focus on year-over-year statistics; changes in car sales, housing starts, or increases in tax revenue to name a few; have an overriding interest in acceleration rather than the quality of the thing itself.

We’d all love a little 7% return on our investments. It’s a modest year-over-year increase that will keep pace with inflation and leave a little something to increase our spending power through the “magic of compounding” with which our mutual funds have made us so familiar.

Consider this rate of growth in a community context, however, and it may not seem quite so modest. 7% per year growth means roughly a doubling each 10 years. Regional population 500,000 to a million by 2015. Two million by 2025, four by 2035. Bigger certainly, but better? Shall we double our water consumption each ten years, double the footprint of the cities on our landscape? Double the services or pollution needed to support a quality of life just to the level we enjoy today? Every ten years? Our Region faces the possibility that water consumption will hit a supply wall. Ditto for converting rural to sprawl (although not anytime soon, and over quite a few dead bodies). Setting aside the question of whether we should, is it even possible?

And yet in spite of it all, growth is still our great sacred cow.

Do we make our plans for balance, stability, or maturity?

No, we worship quantifiable, compounded growth, using an ROI-al mentality. We measure it and report it and graph it ad nauseam. By doing so we embed in our decision-making a conventional belief in the power of numerical acceleration to change our lives for the better, to increase the quality of our lives.

The factual evidence for this belief, some would argue, is really quite scarce. Eben Fodor, in his 1999 American study “Better Not Bigger: How to Take Control of Urban Growth and Improve Your Community”, takes issue with whether the urban growth machine really lowers taxes for individuals, makes more or better jobs and housing available to them, or creates a better quality of life. The logical extension of the “Bigger is Better” argument is that more of things makes for better things. Where we measure some items but ignore others, the statistics are used to prop up the conventional wisdom of growth. Yes growth has impact (so the explanation goes), but to others! To us, the benefits! The costs will fall elsewhere.

This is the illusion of economics, where the “externalities” are never measured, and the qualitative ignored where it cannot fit.

In a world of finite resources, in a regional landscape of finite size needing careful balance, as we increasingly turn to issues of quality over quantity, the growth in statistics of growth will hopefully take a downturn. We will no longer be persuaded by “intensity reductions” that plan for increased pollution at, wait for it…, a slower rate each year per unit produced. We will finally start to ask “Is it better?” rather than “Is it bigger?”

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