Posts Tagged ‘measurement’


This post is for all those dedicated activists and teachers, such as mfa, who are committed to teaching about and creating the conditions to eliminate global poverty and economic injustice.

I have been writing of late about utopia—for example, with respect to classes and the right to be lazy.

But the world economy today represents exactly the opposite, a dystopia of extreme poverty for hundreds of millions of people (768.5 million in 2013 according to the World Bank, or 10.7 percent of the global population).


And as Angus Deaton reminds us, those struggling to survive in conditions of extreme poverty aren’t just “over there,” in the Third World. Notwithstanding the focus of the World Bank-sponsored campaign to eradicate extreme poverty and the ubiquitous appeals on behalf of the needy in poor countries, a large portion—approximately 14 million people—live in wealthy countries—some 5.3 million in the United States alone.

Is there any more damning condemnation of contemporary economic institutions, in both the North and the South?

But wait, there’s more.

We’re talking about hundreds of millions of people living—barely—on less than $1.90 a day!

That’s the official World Bank number, updated in recent years from the original $1 a day and then $1.25 a day. But let’s put that number in perspective, in order to understand how low a threshold it actually is.

First, according to recent research by Robert C. Allen (pdf), $1.90 a day for people in Third World countries covers a consumption basket of food, a variety of nonfood items, and housing. But the devil, as always, is in the details. For food, we’re talking only 2100 calories a day (enough to allow people, beyond a bare minimum, “a more ample supply of energy to do the work that sustains society as well as raising children”), plus additional food (basically animal fat and vegetables) to meet recommended daily allowances of various vitamins and minerals (iron, B12, Folate, B1, Niacin, and C). That’s it in terms of food.* It all includes various nonfood items, such as fuel, lighting, clothing, and soap—but not education, medical, and other such nonfood expenditures. Finally, a housing allowance is calculated, which amounts to just 32 square feet per person.**

Calculate the total of those expenditures (using linear programming) and you end up with an extreme poverty line for people in Third World countries of only $1.90 a day. And the way the world economy is currently organized, it can’t guarantee even that miserly sum to hundreds of millions of people across the globe.

The second way of putting that number into perspective is to recalculate it for people in wealthy countries. Allen has done that, too. For the United States, it comes out to about $4 a day (mostly because housing costs are so much higher, and make up a much larger percentage of poor people’s budgets, than in the Third World).***

That means we’re talking about just $1460 a year for an individual or $5840 for a family of four.**** The way the economy is organized in the United States forces over 5 million people to get by on less than $4 a day.

Consider what those numbers represent—whether $1.90 a day in the Third World or $4 a day in rich countries like the United States—and there’s no doubt, for hundreds of millions of people, we’re living in an economic dystopia.


*Thus, in Sri Lanka, the so-called Basic diet would consist, per person per year, of the following: 309 pounds of rice, 108 pounds of beans and lentils, 77 pounds of eggs, 9 pounds of oil, and 99 pounds of spinach, cauliflower, or peanuts).

**As even Allen admits, “By the standards of rich countries, this represents extreme, and often illegal, overcrowding. Even illegally subdivided apartments in New York offer 5–10 square meters per person.”

***In Third World countries, about two-thirds of spending is on food, one quarter on nonfoods, and 5–10 percent on housing. The food share drops to one quarter in the United States, the nonfood share remains at one quarter, and the housing share explodes to half or more of income.

****The official poverty line in the United States is $34.40 a day for an individual, which comes out to $12,752 a year. According to that standard, 43.1 million Americans (12.7 percent of the population) are forced to have the freedom to live in conditions of poverty.


A new UNICEF report shows that 2.6 million children have sunk below the poverty line in the world’s most affluent countries since 2008, bringing the total number of children in the developed world living in poverty to an estimated 76.5 million.*

In 23 of the 41 countries analyzed, child poverty has increased since 2008. In Ireland, Croatia, Latvia, Greece, and Iceland, rates rose by over 50 per cent.

In the United States, the overall poverty rate for children rose from an already high 30.1 percent in 2008 to 32.2 percent in 2012.

The report also explains that, in recent decades, the social safety net in the United States has favored the working poor more than the out-of-work poor. Thus, for example,

Among those at or below 100 per cent of the poverty threshold, a large decrease in earned income and TANF in 2010 is offset by large increases in food stamps and the EITC. There was also a modest increase in unemployment insurance. For this group as a whole, the increase in child poverty was lower during this recession than it was in 1982.

For those at or below 50 per cent of the poverty threshold – the extreme poor – the story is somewhat different. Panel B still shows a large decrease in earned income and TANF and a large increase in food stamps, but it also shows a much smaller increase in the EITC and a slight decline in unemployment insurance, in contrast with the situation of the regular poor.

This highlights how the United States safety net has changed to provide more support for poor working families and less for the extreme poor with no work. As a result, extreme child poverty has also increased more in this recession than in the recession of 1982, indicating that the safety net was stronger for the poorest children 30 years ago.


*The UNICEF report uses a fixed reference point, anchored to the relative poverty line in 2008, as a benchmark against which to assess the absolute change in child poverty over time. This change is calculated by computing child poverty in 2008 using a poverty line fixed at 60 per cent of median income. Using the same poverty line in 2012, adjusted for inflation, the rate is computed and the difference in the two rates is shown. A positive number indicates an increase in child poverty. (Using a relative poverty line each year would obscure the impact on poverty of an overall decline in median income. In the United Kingdom, for example, relative child poverty decreased from 24 per cent in 2008 to 18.6 per cent in 2012 due to a sharp decline in median income and the subsequent lowering of the relative poverty line. Using the anchored indicator, it actually increased from 24.0 per cent to 25.6 per cent from the start of the recession.)

Measurement problems

Posted: 19 August 2011 in Uncategorized
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It’s a warning I often give to my students: beware of the numbers!

Economic numbers—GDP growth, productivity, inflation, etc.—are often reported with seeming exactness. GDP grew at 1.3 percent in the last quarter, productivity rose by 2.9 percent, prices went down by .6 percent. They appear to be exact, and therefore an accurate representation, but they’re really only guesses, based on a whole slew of assumptions, partial data, and so on. And all of them will be revised, up or down, later on.

Binyamin Appelbaum explains how this works with the GDP numbers.

When the government announced in April that the economy had grown at a moderate annual pace of 1.8 percent in the first quarter, politicians and investors saw evidence that the nation was continuing its recovery from the depths of the financial crisis. The White House called the news “encouraging” and the stock market extended its bull run.

Three months later, the government announced a small change. The economy, it said, actually had expanded at a pace of only 0.4 percent in the first quarter. . .

How can such an important number change so drastically? The answer in this case is surprisingly simple: the Bureau of Economic Analysis, charged with crunching the numbers, concluded that it had underestimated the value of vehicles sitting at dealerships and the nation’s spending on imported oil.

More broadly, politicians and investors are placing a great deal of weight on a crude and rough estimate that has never been particularly reliable.

The rise of the corporate university has brought with it the ranking of universities. And the internationalization of the corporate university has brought with it the international ranking of universities.

Clearly, much depends on these rankings: flows of students (both undergraduate and graduate) and flows of research monies (from the state and private industry), as well as revenues (in the case of public institutions) and endowments (in the case of private institutions, and an increasing number of public institutions). At the same time, the proliferation of international rankings of universities propels the further development of internationalized corporate universities, which are busy remaking themselves to climb in the rankings—or, perhaps, just to survive as they lose out in the rankings.

The problem is, the ranking systems themselves aren’t very good.

The New York Times reports on the problems associated with citations-based rankings systems.

“The problem is we don’t know what we’re trying to measure,” said Ellen Hazelkorn, Dean of the Graduate Research School at the Dublin Institute of Technology and author of “Rankings and the Reshaping of Higher Education: the Battle for World Class Excellence,” coming out this March. “We need cross-national comparative data that is meaningful. But we also need to know whether the way the data are collected makes it more useful — or easier to game the system.”

Dr. Hazelkorn also questioned whether the widespread emphasis on bibliometrics — using figures for academic publications or how often faculty members are cited in scholarly journals as proxies for measuring the quality or influence of a university department — made any sense. “I understand that bibliometrics is attractive because it looks objective. But as Einstein used to say, ‘Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”’

Unlike the Times Higher Education rankings, where surveys of academic reputation make up nearly 45 percent of the total, Shanghai Jiao Tong University relies heavily on faculty publication rates for its rankings; weight is also given to the number of Nobel Prizes or Fields Medals won by alumni or current faculty. The results, say critics, tip toward science and mathematics rather than arts or humanities, while the tally of prizewinners favors rich institutions able to hire faculty members whose best work may be long behind them.

But other systems are no better.

“The big rap on rankings, which has a great deal of truth to it, is that they’re excessively focused on inputs,” said Ben Wildavsky, author of “The Great Brain Race,” who said that measuring faculty size or publications, or counting the books in the university library, as some rankings do, tells you more about a university’s resources than about how those resources impact on students.

While Philip G. Altbach bows too much to the inevitability of rankings, he does raise some of the relevant issues, including the issue of teaching.

Where Is Teaching in International Rankings?

In a word — nowhere. One of the main functions of any university is largely ignored in all of the rankings. Why? Because the quality and impact of teaching is virtually impossible to measure and quantify. Further, measuring and comparing the quality and impact of teaching across countries and academic systems are even more difficult factors. Thus, the rankings have largely ignored teaching. The new Times Higher Education rankings have recognized the importance of teaching and have assigned several proxies to measure teaching. These topics include reputational questions about teaching, teacher-student ratios, number of Ph.D.s awarded per staff member, and several others. The problem is that these criteria do not actually measure teaching, and none even come close to assessing quality of impact. Further, it seems unlikely that asking a cross-section of academics and administrators about teaching quality will yield much useful information.

In the end, the problem is not the rankings or their underlying faulty methodologies. It’s the destruction of the idea of the university, in which new knowledges are produced, critical ideas developed, and young people (not to mention society as a whole) educated.

Let’s see an international ranking for THAT university.