Point of View

Using money instead of morals to answer questions about the public good

December 23, 2013 


A hiker snaps a picture of Pilot Mountain while traveling the Sauratown Trail, which connects Pilot Mountain to Hanging Rock State Park.


Last month, on a chill and rainy Saturday morning, I set off for Pilot Mountain. It seemed a fine day for a hike with friends, and four of us made the 90-minute drive from Chapel Hill.

As we ambled to the trailhead, we were greeted by a pair of N.C. State graduate students wielding clipboards and eager smiles. “Have a moment for an economic impact survey?” asked the bearded fellow, as his research partner readied her pencil.

“Of course!” I replied, eager to do my part for the state parks.

Unfortunately, from an economic standpoint, the four of us were quite useless. We hadn’t purchased any food that day; we packed leftovers for lunch. We hadn’t bought any hiking equipment; a five-mile walk in the woods doesn’t require any. We weren’t staying in a hotel or bed and breakfast. And we arrived in a fuel-sipping car that didn’t need topping off at any point during the trip.

We had a marvelous hike, learned some North Carolina history and generally deepened our appreciation for this wonderful state – but none of that will be reported to policymakers. Instead, our woeful economic stats were duly recorded, and they will hold sway.

Economic impact, after all, has become our grail, the end that must justify any public means, the lodestar that trues our collective compass. Investments and dividends used to be the province of business; they are now the dominant argot of government.

I don’t begrudge the park system its effort to assess economic impact or fault N.C. State for helping gin up numbers. But there is danger in viewing our public goods through an exclusively economic lens.

The demand for clear, formula-driven proof of monetary value is coming to dominate too much of our public discussion about parks, schools, libraries and a whole host of other intrinsically worthy public goods. Armed with algorithms, we seek to measure the efficiency of all things, to settle tough questions of public policy with a mathematician’s misguided confidence.

I have on my bookshelf a fine volume about 19th century English textile mills, wherein one can find a precise calculation of the value of child labor in producing cotton garments (a value based, in part, on a physician’s careful study of the average duration a 10-year-old can work at a mechanical loom before collapsing). It was meant to help guide industrial regulations.

While this valuation was no doubt accurate, it was also wrong. Not because the math was suspect or the physician mistaken about the loom-wielding stamina of children (12 hours, give or take), but because children shouldn’t be working in factories. A mathematical answer was sought where a moral answer was wanted.

And though the questions have changed, we go right on trying to convert ethical quandaries into math problems. We want a formula to tell us whether a park or a forest or a school is worth it. We want a return-on-investment projection for universities, for health care, for environmental regulations. We desperately seek the right regression analysis to tell us whether we’ll enjoy “dividends” from a particular public service. Give us data, we plead. Let the numbers decide.

This is no doubt a fine way to run a profit-seeking business. But it is a sorry and cowardly way of running a state.

And it’s a betrayal of the ideals that built North Carolina. We didn’t fund public schools because they make for a stronger tax base; we built them because knowledge is preferable to ignorance. We didn’t establish parks because they help sell barbecue and gasoline; we built them to preserve public access to the state’s natural beauty. Such principles are difficult to quantify.

Data is a marvelous tool for informing decisions or providing new insight, but it cannot be a substitute for the difficult and uncomfortable work of deciding what we value. If the only answers we can offer come with dollar signs, we’re going to wind up poor in ways that truly defy calculation.

Eric Johnson is a writer in Chapel Hill.

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