The Blog

We Love Numbers - Are They Our Downfall?

We humans adore measuring things. The love affair started as early as the 4th and 5th millennia BC when the ancient peoples of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Indus Valley were developing their systems of measurement for mass, time and length -- right down to 1/16th of an inch. In the meantime, we've come to measure everything imaginable: I.Q., emotional intelligence, influence, risk, stress, happiness, even compassion.

Think that's it? There's something called micromorts. They measure the increased chances of death resulting from performing a mundane task. There's a scale called the Schmidt Sting Pain Index that measures the painfulness of bee stings -- 78 different kinds. There's a book titled "How To Measure Anything" whose author Douglas Hubbard contends that any important decision maker needs to understand that "anything they really need to know is measurable."

I'm not sure that's the kind of representative I wish to elect, or leader I want to work for. But of course, measuring is important. Among other things, it helps us forecast and, to some degree, anticipate future trends.

I was in Madrid recently attending a conference of the FundaciĂłn Bankinter, a Spanish group trying to study current and future global trends with the aim of gleaning lessons for the Spanish economy. The Roundtable of 30 comprised scientists, entrepreneurs, educators, innovators and policy experts from around the world. In a quiet hotel meeting room for a day and a half we had data-driven conversations on economics, demography, intellectual property. And thoughtful reflections on fracking and climate change, corruption and democratic legitimacy, the fate of innovation and the future of free enterprise.

My two principal take-aways:

First, that historian Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) was right. Toynbee was the author of a mammoth study -- 12 volumes, 7,000 pages -- on the rise and fall of civilizations. In a survey of 21 civilizations, he concluded that it's not demography that's destiny. Nor is it geography or resources that are the defining factors behind continued flourishing and success. Toynbee believed that the fate of a civilization depended ultimately on the vitality and imagination of its creative class. It was this "creative minority" that would identify solutions for the most vexing problems of the day and lead society to adapt and re-orient at key moments.

One of the problems we have today in the West has to do with the widening gap -- and growing distrust and antagonism -- between the creative class and the rest of us. It was triggered by the Great Recession, has to do with rising income inequality, and the perception that a small segment of society is racing like never before ahead of the rest.

It's the strivers and creators who are most agile, flexible and adaptive and who have benefited most from the system and culture of free enterprise. It's this creative class that needs to pause and acknowledge that something's broken in democratic capitalism. One danger, of course, is that we repair it to death through a raft of new taxes and regulations. But sensible alternatives? A businessman from our Madrid group asked if it was time to address the need for a new spirituality. His question surprised the group. For whatever it's worth, Toynbee thought moral failure was a key element in most civilizational decline.

Which brings me to the second point, and back to "everything you need to know is measurable." On forecasting and managing the future, read the current issue of the magazine City Journal (published by the Manhattan Institute in New York). In an essay review of new books by Nate Silber and Nassim Taleb, Adam White looks at the promise -- and folly -- of predicting. Yes, we're getting better at forecasting certain things, including binary political races and dangerous weather. Yet time and again hubris leads us to overestimate our predictive powers as we minimize the importance of serendipity, chance, and those eternal unknown unknowns.

Speaking of hubris. Counting everything helps to satisfy our need for control. But numbers are not meaning. And we're unlikely to count or measure our way out of the current crisis.