Alternative numbers

In my post yesterday I said:

… there’s something obscene about the way the economic story gets framed: the figures on a page, the points on an index, the number of dollars someone can swap for a number of different-coloured dollars.

Let me revise that a little.

Numbers can be incredibly useful for telling a story. For example, in the article I linked to in that post, there are these numbers about the size of Housing New Zealand’s “priority A” waiting list:

June 2007: 133
June 2008: 248
June 2009: 261
June 2010: 368
June 2011: 402
June 2012: 425
June 2013: 1290
June 2014: 3188

There are these numbers from FIRST Union about the $4.14 million package paid to ANZ’s CEO:

“That’s $80,000 a week – more than most bank workers earn in a year.”

And it can be a problem when we just don’t have the numbers:

[Child Poverty Action Group] spokesperson Donna Wynd says, “The lack of data means the public has little idea of whether the government’s “relentless focus on work” is actually improving outcomes for children, or protecting vulnerable children – something the government claims is a goal of welfare reform.  Living on a greatly reduced income, with benefits cut by half, has major consequences for children so it’s critical to know the number of children affected by sanctions and for how long.   The public deserves to know the impact of pouring millions of dollars into reforming social assistance.”

The problem is this: to most people – even university-educated people like me – the kinds of numbers we usually hear about are completely opaque. We’re expected to take it for granted that if mean quarterly household incomes have risen, it means people are doing better. Or if the performance of manufacturing index grows for three consecutive months, it means people are doing better.

People are not doing better in New Zealand. Even people like me, who don’t have a lot to fear from three more years of a National government, do not prosper when society grows more unequal, when financial poverty forces people to live in cars, when preventable diseases are rampant, when businesses move their work overseas because of a lack of infrastructure and jobs training, when desperate people tune out of society and turn to addiction or crime.

Numbers can be a guide. They can be useful – even necessary – to figure out what’s working or where more work is needed. But unless they are related to the real lives of people, we should stop giving them weight. Because people are more important than numbers.


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