What numbers make visible & what they erase

That I read Caitlin Rosenthal’s Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management was a bit random – we’re going away for a week and I didn’t want to start a holiday book, so pulled this bound proof the publisher had sent me off the pile. I’m glad I did. It’s a terrifically interesting book. It’s in effect a business history of slavery in the Caribbean and the American south, using the detailed management records that remain to understand how plantations were run – just as business historians would later use similar documentary evidence to trace the practices of management in industry. As she writes, “Scale required structure.” The sugar and cotton plantations were sometimes very large scale indeed. And the science of management emerged in this context before any manufactories grew to the same kind of scale.

There is a particularly illuminating section on the standardisation of record keeping: “Preprinted forms were an important and overlooked technology in organizing plantation labor.” Early records were hand written and ruled, with documents often sent to absentee owners in England – this was, Rosenthal points out, also one of the earliest instances of the separation of ownership and control, as large plantations were often run by professional managers. (The role of earnings from slavery in fuelling the growth of financial instruments and the City in England are the subject of this UCL research project, Legacies of British Slave-ownership) The availability of standard forms helped spread the ‘scientific management’ techniques – again, ahead of Taylor’s famous introduction of scientific management in industry. (This reminded me of Donald Mackenzie’s brilliant essay on how the commercial availability of options prices calculated by computers helped grow derivatives markets.)

Rosenthal also covers the role of slaves as, literally, human capital. Plantation managers kept inventory records and appied several different valuation techniques. As she observes, this was fundamentally an issue about property and therefore about power and politics, property being something defined by law. (And property in the form of people is more political than most.) By the eve of the Civil War, the total value of enslaved human capital was over $3 billion. (Before anyone takes this particularly noxious version of human capital as an opportunity to knock economics, economists were prominent in the abolition campaign, and historian Thomas Carlyle named economics the ‘dismal science’ for not respecting the property rights of slave owners.)

Rosenthal (formerly a management consultant) ends by pointing out that labor conditions for many people in the world still leave much to be desired: “Confronting plantation account books can remind us how easy it is to overlook the conditions of production from the comfort of a counting house or safety of a computer screen. Reckoning with the ways planters accounted for slavery should encourage us to rethink the kinds of data we record and how we use it. Quantitative records can help us to see farther, but only if we remember what the numbers make visible and what they erase.”


No escape from the target setting arms race?

Among my holiday reads has been Jerry Muller’s The Tyranny of Metrics, published in the UK in a couple of weeks (can be pre-ordered now). The broad thesis of the book, which is a lively read, will be familiar to readers of the literature on the gaming of public service targets. This short book is stuffed with examples of the counter-productive results of insistence on numerical targets.

There is an interesting chapter on the origins of metric-fixation (at least in capitalist economies – the Soviet Union was always rather keen on it), which starts: “The demand for measured accountability and transparency waxes as trust wanes.” Social change following the explosion of protest against authority in the 1960s and the erosion of the post-war class certainties contributed to this process. So did the evident failures in public services and nationalised industries by the 1970s. But as the book goes on to note – and has been explored in the academic literature – public services are not like businesses, having a larger, complex set of aims and depending fundamentally on intrinsic motivation. A thriving public sector is important to the health of the wider economy: “A capitalist society depends for its flourishing on a variety of institutions that provide a counterweight to the market with its focus on monetary gain.”

The book goes on to give a range of examples of targets turned counter-productive in arenas from higher education to medicine and policing to business. Yes, business too. For here targets are linked to remuneration. Yet, as the book notes, economic theory (Holmstrom and Milgrom, as I describe here) and evidence point firmly away from rewarding the attainment of targets whenever individual effort is un-monitorable. Not that this has prevented to spread of performance pay or bonuses, Muller observes: “Although there is a large body of scholarship in the fields of psychology and economics that call into question the premises and effectiveness of pay for measured performance, that literature seems to have done little to halt the spread of metric fixation.” The book ends with a section describing how to use targets intelligently – think about what you’re trying to measure, why and for what purpose. Above all, think. The frustration is that it offers no thoughts about how to roll back the vast swathes of counter-prouctive targetry already afflicting us. Just imagine the outcry if any politician promises a ‘bonfire of the targets’ or less transparency. On the contrary, the arms race seems as intense as ever – when the pitfalls of one type of target are recognized, the solution is more complicated metrics. But dearmament is what we need.

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