The Tyranny of Metrics

The Tyranny of Metrics

Jerry Z. Muller

Coming up with useful metrics often requires an immersion in local conditions. Take, for example, the market price of exotic (i.e., nonlocal) vegetables, which few outsiders look to as a useful indicator of a population’s perceived peace and well-being. Kilcullen, however, explains why they might be helpful: Afghanistan is an agricultural economy, and crop diversity varies markedly across the country. Given the free-market economics of agricultural production in Afghanistan, risk and cost factors—the opportunity cost of growing a crop, the risk of transporting it across insecure roads, the risk of selling it at market and of transporting money home again—tend to be automatically priced in to the cost of fruits and vegetables. Thus, fluctuations in overall market prices may be a surrogate metric for general popular confidence and perceived security. In particular, exotic vegetables—those grown outside a particular district that have to be transported further at greater risk in order to be sold in that district—can be a useful telltale marker.

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