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Hillinger, Claude (May 2007): Measurement in Economics and Social Science. Discussion Papers in Economics 2007-19
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Abstract

The paper discusses measurement, primarily in economics, from both analytical and historical perspectives. The historical section traces the commitment to ordinalism on the part of economic theorists from the doctrinal disputes between classical economics and marginalism, through the struggle of orthodox economics against socialism down to the cold-war alliance between mathematical social science and anti-communist ideology. In economics the commitment to ordinalism led to the separation of theory from the quantitative measures that are computed in practice: price and quantity indexes, consumer surplus and real national product. The commitment to ordinality entered political science, via Arrow’s ‘impossibility theorem’, effectively merging it with economics, and ensuring its sterility. How can a field that has as its central result the impossibility of democracy contribute to the design of democratic institutions? The analytical part of the paper deals with the quantitative measures mentioned above. I begin with the conceptual clarification that what these measures try to achieve is a restoration of the money metric that is lost when prices are variable. I conclude that there is only one measure that can be embedded in a satisfactory economic theory, free from unreasonable restrictions. It is the Törnqvist index as an approximation to its theoretical counterpart the Divisia index. The statistical agencies have at various times produced different measures for real national product and its components, as well as related concepts. I argue that all of these are flawed and that a single deflator should be used for the aggregate and the components. Ideally this should be a chained Törnqvist price index defined on aggregate consumption. The social sciences are split. The economic approach is abstract, focused on the assumption of rational and informed behavior, and tends to the political right. The sociological approach is empirical, stresses the non-rational aspects of human behavior and tends to the political left. I argue that the split is due to the fact that the empirical and theoretical traditions were never joined in the social sciences as they were in the natural sciences. I also argue that measurement can potentially help in healing this split.