Tools of persuasion

Emil Urhammer

In this section, we attempt to describe a feature of the economic measures and models that has not been the subject to much research – not in mainstream economics or ecological economics. However, they have been addressed in the so-called ‘science and technology studies’, which assert that economic measures and models are not passive reflections of a completed economic reality, but that instead they help to create and produce economic reality in certain ways. In this way, economic measures and models can be viewed as tools of political persuasion that have a major influence on social conditions. Examples of this are GDP, which helps define what is good and desirable in terms of societal development; cost-benefit analysis, which influences important policy decisions, and the Ministry of Finance’s macroeconomic models, which are used to guide the government’s economic policy. These tools are characterised by a particular view of the economy, where markets and prices are the dominant factors, while ecosystems and ethics do not really play a role. The struggle over economic policy can, thus, also be seen as a battle between different tools of persuasion, where mainstream economics emphasises GDP and cost-benefit analysis, while other economic schools apply biophysical indicators and emphasise distribution between different groups in society as crucial.

Societal measurement tools: management and performativity
Jens Stissing Jensen
Societal development largely depends on managing processes and systems such as ‘the economy’, ‘the food production system’ or ‘the transport system’. However, these systems are phenomena that can not be observed or sensed in the same way as a house or an animal. Nevertheless, societal governance requires that such systems and processes are made visible. To this end, a large number of ‘measurement tools’, which attempt to determine the state of health and the development of these societal processes and systems, have been developed over time. Such measurement tools constitute a kind of expanded sensing device that politicians, planners and officials use to assess the necessity and effect of new policies and strategies. For example, the economic reality is presented as a controllable political and administrative entity by way of continuous measurements of GDP, unemployment and inflation.

However, measurement instruments can never give a full representation of the social reality because they only measure selected and delimited parameters. Therefore, societal governance may fail if the parameters measured by the instruments are not appropriately defined. For example, measuring inflation is typically used to assess the extent to which the economy is approaching overheating. However, measuring inflation was unable to identify the overheating of the economy that led to the financial crisis in 2008. This is, amongst others, due to the fact that inflation is only measured by price increases for consumer goods. The measurements, therefore, did not identify the explosive increase in house prices, shares and financial products as evidence of speculative economic overheating. Therefore, the economic overheating was not captured by the measurement instruments that are traditionally used to identify this phenomenon. Consequently, a challenge for societal governance is to continually adjust the measurement instruments in such a way that they provide an adequate representation of the social reality.

In addition to creating controllability, measurement instruments also have a so-called performative function, which means that they actively help shape the way in which planners and politicians perceive societal issues. This is because measurement instruments can be set up so that they make the social reality appear in many different ways. For example, the established economic measurement instruments primarily determine whether the economy balances in financial terms: Do the public finances balance? How big is the private debt? Are investments in production machinery increasing? As these financial balances are made visible through measurements, the balances become prominent issues in political reality. Thus, the measurement instruments exclude a number of important factors by, for example, not including any measures for the biophysical development of the economy.

Measurement instruments can also be used ‘performatively’, i.e. to redefine which phenomena and relationships are made visible or invisible, and thus what problems the political system is able to spot. For example, measurment instruments have played a performative role in the planning of cycling infrastructure in Copenhagen over the last 20 years. Until the mid-1990s, planning was primarily based on measuring the number of cycling accidents, which meant that most of the planning was directed at reducing bicycle accidents. Since then, a new measurement instrument has been developed; the so-called bicycle account, which also recorded cyclists’ experiences in terms of safety, comfort and convenience. Due to the influence of this visibility, planning began to focus on creating good and attractive cycling experiences. Recently, the City of Copenhagen has developed another measurement instrument that focuses on the health-promoting effects of cycling. This visibility has been central to the establishment of regional super cycle paths. The development of new measurement instruments has, thus, contributed to ‘redefine’ cycling so that it is no longer defined by accidents, but instead is linked with good experiences and the promotion of health.

Societal governance and development are, thus, closely linked to the use of measurement tools. Measurement tools are necessary to describe and identify the state of health and development of societal processes and systems, which can not be done directly through our sensory apparatus. Societal measurement tools function as a sort of expanded sensory apparatus, which can be used to influence which issues attract the attention of the political system by making certain objects and relationships visible, while concealing others.