The Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi commission

Photo credit: Le point. That’s Stiglitz on the right with files, Sen is the one with the mischevious smile and blue shirt, and Fitoussi is the smoker.

Yesterday, I attended the presentation of the report of the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi commission on the measurement of economic performance and social progress.

In a nutshell, since there is a consensus around the limitations of GDP as the main indicator of performance, the commission aims to find other ways to measure the efficiency of an economic policy.

The idea is to build indicators that would be closer to the experience of the citizen, rather than an abstract, expert top-view of a system. The report argues for a system of indicators of well-being, measures of leisure and culture, better environmental indicators and also better ways to understand inequalities, rather than a constant focus on averages and aggregates.

OECD, my employer, was quite involved in the report, as several members of the commission were OECD (or recent ex-OECD) and because there are several programmes at OECD with similar goals.

So the ideas in the report are not very new. But the real breakthrough is the degree of political support the commission is getting.

You’d probably think that governments would take heed of the musings of 5 Nobel prizes and 17 top-notch academics on their own merits. But the reason why GDP is such a popular indicator is not because it’s perfect, but because it’s relatively easy to compute. With a stress of “relatively”: it’s an incredibly complex endeavor on which hundreds of people work full time in every country. But at least, it obeys to very explicit rules and as such it is comparable across nations. Any new indicators would be difficult (read expensive) to set up, and to be effective, they’d require a similar framework, which means a good number of countries following the same methodology to compile data.

That has been the stumbling block. But Sarkozy, who sponsored the report, stated very clearly that he’d put it on the agenda of every international meeting he’ll attend, and that he’ll demand that all international organizations put it into practice. Because of the crisis, and the global inability of statistical offices to prevent it, the timing may well be right to make that claim.

 

Misleading with road statistics

Changing driving behaviors with campaigning alone is a tall order, but is literally a life-or-death matter. Road fatalities range from about 40/million  in Japan, to about 6 times as much in Russia. Fortunately, the numbers tend to decrease in most places, due to better equipment, better roads, harsher punishment and safer behaviors.

Of all of these factors, drivers behavior is the only thing which isn’t directly controlled by governments, so it’s no surprise that it’s what the agencies try to target. Almost every angle has been tried: blaming alcohol, speed, showing the consequences of seemingly inocuous oversights, and, obviously, gore and shocking images.

This year, in France, they’ve tried a different approach with a campaign called the 12000: thanking the drivers for their better behavior, which has saved, well, 12000 lives since 2003.

I really appreciate the upbeat tone of campaign and its much welcome positive spin. Unfortunately, it’s based on such fallacy that it’s difficult to accept as such.

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Here’s one view of what has happened. The number of fatalities has dropped since 2003. (By the way, the unit for this and the following chart are fatalities per million population, indexed so that the value for France in 2003 is 100). It can be argued that lives have been saved, because if the number of fatalities had remained constant since 2003, the area in green would represent extra fatalities (around 6,000).

But that’s what the agency wants us to believe.

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Says the website,

12000 lives have been saved between 2003 and 2008. Fatalities have dropped from 6126 in 2003 to 4275 in 2008.

To actually come up with that number of 12000 person saved, they’ve simply multiplied the difference between the 2008 and 2003 figures by 6. As if there had been a sudden and drastic drop in 2003.

I wonder why they do that. Behaviors have changed on the road. 75% of French drivers have a perfect driving record, another 15% have only committed minor offences. Those are facts. So why inflate the numbers? and why, for instance, start at 2003 and not 2002, where mortality dropped by over 20% ? 12000, as an absolute figure, is not more striking than 1000 or 100000.

The visuals all repeat this figure. On all the posters of the campaign, we find the following footnote: “* If behaviors had not changed since 2002 in France, 12000 more people would have died on the road between 2003 and 2008. Source: ONISR. “. The ONISR says no such things in their report, so that number must have been invented for the campaign.

Speaking of the ONISR reports, they estimate that if people observed speed, alcohol and seat belt legislations, the numbers would drop by over 2000. So are we doing that well?

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That’s a comparison with the UK. Again, the units are ratio per population, not absolute figures. If France had the same road fatalities that the UK, over 10,000 persons would not have been killed over the 2003-2008 period…

Anyway. There’s no good reason why all western countries couldn’t go under 50 killed / million population within a reasonably short time frame.