Archive for the ‘quantifying’ Category

Some new guys on the block, Stiglitz, Sen and Fitoussi, just let us know that the GDP doesn’t represent the economy correctly: it may be leaving out the world.

Choices between promoting GDP and protecting the environment may be
false choices, once environmental degradation is appropriately included in our
measurement of economic performance.

“Choices between promoting GDP and protecting the environment may be false choices, once environmental degradation is appropriately included in our measurement of economic performance.”

Indeed. So once a controversy is “appropriately” built into the measuring device, beyond politics, no arguing is necessary. Same old game.


Attention. Attention. French sociologist of science discovers that America is a statistical invention.

One reputable French union is alerting here the scientific and teaching community about what is happening to public statistics on science and education in France. The government’s mot d’ordre seems to be here “contrôler le chiffre” (“controlling figures”).

So there is this statistics department working for the ministries in charge of education and scientific research, called DEPP (Direction de l’évaluation, de la prospective et de la performance), which is supposed to be responsible for the production and publication of statistics about schools, universities and so forth. But the cabinet of Xavier Darcos, Sarkozy’s minister of national education, is now considering these public statistics as confidential, blocking publication — are concerned in particular surveys from the DEPP that could hinder the minister’s demographic justifications for downsizing the education system.

That’s relieving: a government that cares so much about statistics that it prefers to keep them for itself alone.

Readers interested in the fate of quantified performance can have a look here at the performance targets which accompany the 2009 budget for the French Ministry of Immigration and National Identity (a gem of Sarkozy’s France, already blogged about here). The number of actual deportations (“nombre de mesures de reconduites effectives à la frontière”) should increase to 30,000 for next year. (On the problem of the sinister naming of managerial devices, check out also the meaning of the acronym GESTEL, the database upon which this counting is done here: it looks like it stands for “gestion de l’éloignement” that is, “management of estrangement” or “management of the taking away”.)

Well, national deportation statisticians should actually be thanked. They provided a quite astonishing slogan for the recent donation campaign for the CIMADE (a French organization helping migrants held in detention centers): “behind this figure, lives are shattered!”.

A key sign of the relationship between academia and wisdom (at least in the United States) has been the above-average returns earned by university and college endowments. In August last year Harvard reported a 23.0 per cent return on its $34.9-billion pot of money. In wealthy colleges across the country, the yearly report of the chief investment officer is often the only occasion when professors, tenured and untenured alike, leave aside their personal and philosophical quarrels and join each other in enthusiastic applause. Not out of selfish material interest, mind you, but because in the success of their investment strategies they find vicarious confirmation of their institutions’ ineffable wisdom. What better way of proving one’s excellence? Yes, they are smarter than everybody else and, more importantly, smarter than the market. (Max Weber should have added an appendix on academics to The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism).

Oh well, the era of differential smartness is over. Reports of heavy losses by university endowments are multiplying (see here, here, and especially here). Amherst College announced a drop of 25 per cent in its endowment ($1.6 billion) last year, and other top universities are expected to suffer large losses. Their investment strategies suddenly look mundane. The upshot: the financial crisis is likely to stall efforts, currently underway in Congress, to force wealthy universities to spend a minimun percentage of their endowments on their students.

For the record: another person died last week out of Sarkozy’s statistical terror. On Friday April 5, the cops where using (as it is becoming usual) transportation fare control as a device to capture some immigrant at the Joinville-le-Pont RER station, near Paris. Someone jumped into the Marne and died of a heart attack. Here is some media coverage at Libération and Le Monde. There is also a statement by RESF (Réseau Education Sans Frontières) here. And Rue89 reported and attempt from associations at occupying the EHESS (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales) in order to alert intellectuals.

Again, a classic in Sarkozy’s France (see also a bit of this in Doing Figures):

“Struggling to meet the objective of expelling effectively 25000 foreigners per year, the French administration fosters all kinds of statistical and judicial tinkering. On December 7 2007, the Court of Appeal in Rennes canceled the arrest of a Sudanese in irregular situation. Police had asked him to display identity papers because he crossed the street outside the pedestrian crossing. The Court considered that “the procedure did not correspond to any plausible suspicion of an irregular situation”. The Court also remarked that arrest records similar to this one were written “in exactly the same terms”, which may correspond to a practice of cut and paste.” (from “Sans-papiers: des quotas d’expulsion inaccessibles”, Le Monde, January 4 2008; see also “A Rennes, la justice refuse les contrôles au faciès”, Rue98, December 19 2007)

An idea: tourists, especially British, wishing to contribute to the improvement of French immigration police performance indicators with a lesson on how to well-behave in a target world should be kindly advised to cross the street outside the pedestrian crossing and get arrested before getting into the Eurostar. They might even get their way back refunded if they tell the cops that they actually are from a strange nationality and that they were ready to stay longer (that is probably enough to tick the “done” line in their performance spread sheet).

The business week started with a jolly piece of news (pointed out by Alea):

“The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. (NYSE: GS) today announced that it has launched the first index that will allow market participants to measure, manage, and trade exposure to longevity and mortality risks in a standardized, transparent, and real-time manner. Longevity and mortality are the risks that realized lifespan differs from expected lifespan, creating an economic consequence, often a price change in an asset or liability. Holders of mortality risk — typically institutions such as insurance carriers and reinsurers — are economically exposed to a decrease in lifespan, while holders of longevity risks — pension funds, annuity writers, the social security trust fund or life settlement investors — are exposed to an increase. QxX.LS, the first in an expected series of indices, will be a representative sample of the US senior insured population over the age of 65. The initial index will reference a pool of 46,290 de-identified lives.” (from “Goldman Sachs Launches Tradeable Index for Longevity and Mortality”, Business Wire, December 14 2007)

This sounds like a neat response to interesting promises of sophisticated business in the longevity market. The index, of course, is to be traded:

“Hedge funds, banks and asset managers with existing positions in the cash longevity market, or those with an interest in gaining synthetic exposure to this uncorrelated risk class, will be able to use the index to either hedge existing exposure or to initiate investments. We are excited about bringing this unique product to the market and believe that it will quickly establish itself as the market benchmark. This will result in more transparent pricing of longevity risk, should reduce transaction friction, and will likely lead to improved economics for market participants, said Alex Dubitsky, head of Goldman Sachs Longevity Markets Group.” (from “Goldman Sachs Launches Tradeable Index for Longevity and Mortality”, Business Wire, December 14 2007)

In order to be entirely convincing, however, this index should consider more fine-grained analysis of longevity (mortality) quantitative nuances. For instance, it could take into account meaningful economic data such as suicide rates, which may indicate mature despondency and subsequent disqualification of realized lifespan. Financial engineers at Goldman Sachs could perhaps correlate the Despondency Index — an economic indicator which takes the moving average of the suicide rate off the Golden Gate Bridge and indexes it to the Dow Jones Industrial Average (developed by Natalie Jeremijenko for the Bureau of Inverse Technology).

In an interview aired today here at France Culture, the journalist teased Alain Desrosières (statistician and historian of statistics, author of The Politics of Large Numbers) with the one-million-dollars question: “are all figures false?”. His reply was, roughly: “wrong question; the right question is where and how are they produced”.

A follow-up on Them or Us: the text of the law on immigration control, integration and asylum (the one about genetic integrity, compulsory language skills and minimum income) recently voted at the Assemblée Nationale is available here. And the transcripts from the parliamentary debate are available here. Interesting: we learn that 550 parliamentarians were counted as voters, but only 517 voted (282 for and 235 against). So it seams that about 30 or 40 members from the ruling majority chose not to push the “yes” button. Discreet but historically meaningful, probably.