Nothing Measured, Nothing Gained


(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Measurement can be a remarkably effective tool for social change. When a new round of international student assessments was released last week, South Korea, Singapore and Finland received plaudits for their strong performance. There was relief in Sweden at its recovery from its earlier fall in the ratings. And the Philippines was put on notice that its performance is unacceptable.

In similar fashion, the World Bank’s Doing Business Index gives countries an incentive to streamline their regulations, while Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index does the same for countries tackling that problem.

These successes raise a question: Which other indexes might be useful? Think of the suggestions that follow as a kind of Christmas wish list.

How about a loneliness index? David Brooks has argued that America faces a crisis of loneliness, making us unhappy and impoverishing us spiritually. I find these claims plausible, especially since the median U.S. household size has been shrinking.

Still, just how bad is this problem? One recent study found that American loneliness has not been rising lately, and that loneliness increases only after people reach their early 70s. On the other hand, Cigna’s “loneliness survey” of 20,000 Americans aged 18 and over, published earlier this year, found the youngest Americans to be the most lonely, and the oldest ones the least.

But Cigna’s study relies too much on online self-reporting. It is possible to measure interactions with other people, as well as civic engagement. A greater effort to systematize the data would be helpful.

A stress index for Americans another related idea: Just how much do our lives focus our attention on our worries rather than on our joys and hopeful expectations?

There are less emotional concerns as well. How about an infrastructure speed index? I worry about bureaucratization and the slow pace of building important public works. Construction on Manhattan’s Second Avenue subway line, for example, started in 1972, paused, resumed in 2004, and was finally completed (the first phase, anyway) in 2017. In contrast, construction of the core New York City subway system, with 28 stations, began in 1900 and finished in 1904. Similarly, construction of the Empire State Building took only 410 days.

Why do so many U.S. infrastructure projects today take so long? And if the process of improving and reshaping the environment to further human progress is now so much slower, doesn’t it make sense to try to measure this decline for the purpose of eventual improvement? Given the need for a greener energy infrastructure, this is a matter of the utmost urgency.

Speaking of energy infrastructure, how about a severity index for climate change and associated problems? In general, estimates of the cost of climate change have been rising, and some now run as high as 10% of GDP by 2100. New data suggests that permafrost melting in the Arctic and Greenland is further along than many observers had been expecting, and they say this change could release further carbon into the atmosphere.

That sounds bad. But exactly how bad? I am a relatively numerate, well-educated professor of economics, and I don’t know. I understand this would be one of the less exact indexes under consideration, and it would be especially important to keep it out of politicized hands. Still, it could help make vivid the dilemmas we face.

There should also be an innovation index to measure the positive impact of American ingenuity. The U.S. is the world leader in Nobel laureates, startup businesses, tech companies, medical innovations and many other areas of economic progress. In a given year, just how much does the rest of the world benefit from U.S. creativity? Calls for the U.S. to adopt the supposedly superior systems of Western European countries, for instance in health care, are common. That’s a debate worth having, but it requires good data. One piece of information worth knowing is just how much good the U.S. is doing for the rest of the world under the current system.

There is a new international index of how well countries respond to the sexual abuse and exploitation of children, and the U.S. ranks highly. That’s certainly good to see, but how about an index measuring violence against children in the U.S., perhaps on a state-by-state or city-by-city basis? It would help show which state and local governments were best addressing these issues.

Indexes are informative, easy to digest, and remarkably well-suited for social-media sharing. At their best, they can actually be fun. Creating more of them is one way social scientists can satisfy the growing public hunger for knowledge and accountability.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include "Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero."

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