Democracy has a Measurement Problem

Rethinking GDP and More

If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it

The best way to build a business is to pick a metric that you would like to optimize, and focus singularly on growing it. Through five years of doing a startup, I’ve seen that the choice of how you define your growth matters as much as your strategy decisions or your operational efforts. And it’s not just me — this approach is followed religiously at YCombinator, where startups usually pick a single metric and attempt to amplify it week-on-week.

I’ve seen the same pattern hold up in my personal life too. In years when I’ve set broad goals like “meet more people” or “read more”, I’ve fallen terribly short of my targets. When I’ve switched to quantitative targets like “meet 1 person each week” or “read 3 books a month”, I’ve not only been forced to think through my goals in greater detail, I’ve also enjoyed far more success in hitting my targets.

Quantifying governance?

Can the same mantra be applied to our public lives?

At the moment, the lack of a representative and simple to understand set of metrics in public life is hurting democracies all over the world. In the absence of clear set of targets, it seems as though governments have been picking the wrong goals to focus on, either by woefully misinterpreting the requirements of the general populace or by taking policy approaches that diverge from campaign promises. In response, voters seem to have realized that the correlation between their vote and the fulfilment of their needs is non-existent, or at best weak. As a result, the norm has settled at individuals making voting decisions based on fickle priorities and character-based judgements.

A clear indicator of this phenomenon is the populist movements in the US, Europe, Philippines and elsewhere. As John Judis writes in “The Populist Explosion” — in times when the government is in sync with the needs of the people, elections serve as an exercise in tweaking and fine-tuning. When the government and the populace are significantly out of sync, the will of the people manifests as sharp political turns, in an attempt to force those who govern to recalibrate. The latter is exactly what we’re seeing play out world over.

This problem is not new. Be it through protests, low voter turnout or otherwise, bringing the government to reflect the people’s will has been a recurring challenge.

GDP: A flawed metric

The most dominant metric in public life has been GDP, the monetary value of the goods and services produced in an economy. In the absence of true measures, it has, over time, become synonymous with progress and welfare. Particularly, over the last decade, India and (communist) China have taken to describing their rise on the global stage in terms of their GDP growth rates.

The issue with this is that GDP is only an economic measure, and doesn’t factor in prosperity, happiness, sustainability, health, education and other components that are arguably of more direct importance to people. It is blind to the distinction between building a prison and building a school. Or to the long-term effects of the loss of biodiversity and natural resources. Or even to the rise of unfair wealth distribution. In fact, it isn’t beyond reason to argue that the focus on GDP has had a hand in the apathy to climate change and the rise of income inequality, by aiding the implementation of unchecked neoliberalist policies that focus solely on wealth creation.

The many elements of happiness and well-being — ref. Koroneos et al.

Undoubtedly, GDP and related economic measures have useful properties and a valid role in society. Productivism and consumerism, which is what GDP really measures, are loosely correlated with prosperity. However, left unbalanced without complementary metrics, and you’ll have yourself a disconnect between the government and the people.

Alternatives and supplements

A number of alternatives and supplements exist — Green GDP, Genuine Progress Indicator, Sustainable Development Index — but none have been accorded mainstream attention.

“Green GDP”, which factors environmental costs into GDP, had its moment in 2004 when Wen Jiaobao (the Chinese premier) announced that Green GDP would replace GDP in the Chinese context. He even suggested that the performance of officials would be recalibrated to this metric. When the numbers themselves proved to be unflattering though, the entire effort was buried.

The issue with these alternatives so far has been that they are subject to political tampering. Since there is no established standard for weighing the loss of a coal mining job against an increase in air pollution in an apples-to-apples comparison, these metrics themselves have an element of subjectivity.

How, then?

This discussion begs the question — can there be a way to accurately measure the performance of a government, through a set of metrics that encompasses all considerations? And will such a measure ever become the center of our elections and public lives?

Personally, I believe that some sort of quantitative assessment framework can and will rise over time. Perfectly representative and objective metrics are unlikely, since the will of societies is too complex and fickle to quantify. We will, however, learn to make assumptions and find approximations to establish indicators that strongly correlate with the will of the people. Moreover, we will begin to collectively make voting decisions that reflect a fair evaluation of how governments perform against the barometer of the metrics that they were asked to pursue.

Our Impending (Sci-Fi) Future

I envision a future in which candidates for elected positions campaign on the metrics that they believe are important and how they intend to measure these metrics, in addition to the credentials they possess, the methods they plan to adopt and the values that they consider important. Once elected, the metrics proposed by these officials will be evaluated by independent groups, in a manner that is open for all to see. At re-election time, officials who fail to hit their targets, or who fail to recalibrate their campaign metrics to reflect latest public priorities, will be rejected by the electorate.

Now, I know what you’re thinking — it is naive to expect this degree of objectivity from large groups of people, more so considering the aversion to facts and anti-intellectualism that seems to have taken hold world over. I agree that this is unrealistic in the short-run. In the medium to long term though, I am optimistic because I see at least one of the following phenomena materializing:

  1. The internet as a medium for decentralized dissemination of information is still a very nascent concept. Few could have imagined that a company founded little over a decade ago — Facebook — could so radically alter the face of elections. It’s difficult to predict where we will be a decade from now. My bet is that the internet will become a powerful agent in the gathering, measurement and curation of data that I mentioned previously, be it through formal organizations or informal communities. By then the pall of fake news and internet trolls would have receded, either by design or through the establishment of cultural norms.
  2. AI (artificial intelligence) will gradually take over a lot our cognitive tasks, and we will begin to rely on it to make a lot of our decisions. The path from “Google, what are Trump’s thoughts on climate change” → “Google, should I vote for Trump” is far more direct than you would expect. When this happens, we will learn to become more objective as individuals.
  3. Crises born out of climate change will force us to adapt rapidly, and direct our collective focus towards objectively solving problems.
  4. All of the metrics that we track, right from GDP to Gini coefficients, are retrospective. Before long, predictive techniques that accurately simulate and extrapolate the impact of a set of policy decisions will arise. I’m not talking about numbers on a sheet of paper released by public bodies. I’m talking about videos or VR simulations that appeal directly to public psyche, generated by democratized and trustworthy prediction tools. This will hopefully offer us a better lens through which we can evaluate candidates.

Democracy has been, by nature, wild and unruly. We will never be able to, and nor should we, completely reduce it to numbers on a sheet of paper. What seems clear to me though is that our current methods for making decisions as critical as choosing our elected officials are whimsical and broken. The introduction of metrics that aid this process is essential if we want to better align the actions of governments with the will of people.