Who was Simon Kuznets?

Normally I do not gravitate to articles about economic statistics, much less the history of them. But Adam Davidson is a canny writer and I was drawn in by his recent NYT Magazine article about them and the stories they tell and the ones they don’t.

Davidson’s essay on why the US Government tracks certain data (the number of employed adhesive-bonding-machine operators, for example) and not others (Python vs. Java programmers, for example) led to an interesting fellow named Simon Kuznets who, although he won a Nobel Laureate for his work categorizing and gathering government data, ultimately concluded that the whole endeavor is pointless…. or at least very very imperfect.

Because, as Davidson sums up his perspective: “We measure money and other practical things because we don’t know how to measure happiness or fulfillment precisely.”

To me this seems like a dilemma that the arts community knows all too well. Here we are living in a data-obsessed world creating objects and experiences for which there really are no precise measuring sticks.

And yet, like Kuznets and everyone from presidents and bureaucrats to business-owners and stock-pickers who has come to rely on the reams of data that he first set about collecting and stitching together into a picture of the economy, we need something to tell us that when we drop a rock in a proverbial pond, there is a ripple.

The rock may be a single performance or a multi-year program to engage new audiences in new ways. It may be a subtle shift in how a work is presented or a radical transformation in how a cultural institution organizes itself.

Either way we need information that can be observed and data that can be empirically tested (like the number* of employed adhesive-bonding-machine operators) to serve as proxies for the phenomena we experience subjectively.

Davidson contends that the power, ubiquity and inexpensiveness of new technologies means that we actually can get a lot more precise about measuring whether we’re happy or not. No, there is no magic wand but with wearable devices measuring our heart-rates all the time, and smart-phones that are tracking everyplace we go and how long we stay there, we have incredible tools to gauge whether we’re spending our lives with the people we care about, doing the things we say we like and if we’re physiologically responding to stimuli in ways that correspond with pleasure.

Davidson calls for an updating of our approach to gathering economic data in order to improve how we “measure the quality of our lives.” (Kuznets, in an elegant and soft-voiced manner would have called this “expanding the national accounting framework”).

It seems to me that while we’re at it, those of us in the arts who know how important it is to use our precious resources wisely to inspire, provoke, and offer moments of grace might want to experiment with these tools and see if they can help us get better at measuring the impact of the art in our lives too.

*there are 18,210 adhesive-bonding-machine operators.

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