The Tyranny of (Some) Metrics

Nancy Folbre
16 October 2018

This new book by Jerry Z. Muller (Princeton University Press, 2018) does a great job explaining what happens when policy makers rely too heavily on simplistic measures of performance.

Jerry Z. Muller offers compelling examples from diverse domains, ranging from schools to hospitals to police departments, the military, and foreign aid.  His opening riff on the 2002-2008 television series, The Wire, is especially memorable.

I wish he had said more about the way gender enters this story–women tend to specialize in gendered jobs where performance is especially difficult to measure (eg. health, education, childcare). Men are more likely to enter jobs with a clear performance scoreboard, though police and military work (also highly gendered) are exceptions. In a competitive market economy intrinsic motivation, however valuable, can become an economic liability. And paradoxically, too little measurement effort can be as problematic as too much–as with the undervaluation of time devoted to care work and reluctance to develop alternatives to Gross Domestic Product as an arbiter of economic success. Absence of measurement effort can also lead to tyranny. I want better metrics rather than simply more or less. I’m pretty sure Muller would agree; in any case, I’m grateful for his cautionary tales of well-intentioned measurements gone awry.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *