FickleFormulas: The Political Economy of Macroeconomic Measurement

About: “Statistics about economic activities are critical to governance. Measurements of growth, unemployment and inflation rates, public debts – they all tell us ‘how our economies are doing’ and inform policy. Citizens punish politicians who fail to deliver on them.

FickleFormulas has integrated two research projects at the University of Amsterdam that ran from 2014 to 2020. Its researchers have studied the origins of the formulas behind these indicators: why do we measure our economies the way we do? After all, it is far from self-evident how to define and measure economic indicators. Our choices have deeply distributional consequences, producing winners and losers, and they shape our future, for example when GDP figures hide the cost of environmental destruction.

Criticisms of particular measures are hardly new. GDP in particular has been denounced as a deeply deficient measure of production at best and a fundamentally misleading guidepost for human development at worst. But also measures of inflation, balances of payments and trade, unemployment figures, productivity or public debt hide unsolved and maybe insoluble problems. In FickleFormulas we have asked: which social, political and economic factors shape the formulas used to calculate macroeconomic indicators?

In our quest for answers we have mobilized scholarship and expertise scattered across academic disciplines – a wealth of knowledge brought together for example here. We have reconstructed expert-deliberations of past decades, but mostly we wanted to learn from those who actually design macroeconomic indicators: statisticians at national statistical offices or organizations such as the OECD, the UN, the IMF, or the World Bank. For us, understanding macroeconomic indicators has been impossible without talking to the people who live and breathe them….(More)”.