Thursday, December 30, 2004
Dark Numbers of Capitalism
In Joel Best's Damned Lies and Statistics, he explains the concept of "dark numbers" in statistics. This is a number that is essentially a guess, often an educated guess, but still a guess. The example given is crime statistics. The number of murders in the US is fairly well documented because for every dead body a cause of death is required on the death certificate. The unknown number of murders (undetected, classified as accidental, no body found, etc.) is what is called the dark number. Relatively speaking, it's probably a small percentage of the total number of murders but it is still unknown. When calculating the number of murders in the US, the FBI (who compiles such statistics) adds the known number of murders reported from around the country to X (the "dark number") to get a total number of murders.
Now, compared to the dark number of other crimes, murder rate statistics are fairly accurate. But take statistics on rape. First you have the number of rapes reported to the police. What percentage of rapes are reported to the police? 50%? 25%? 10%? Who knows for sure? It's a complex social crime with stigma, shame, violence and more surrounding it. All you can gather for sure is the actual number of rapes reported to authorities. From there, you have to start making assumptions about how many rapes are not reported. And that is very tricky. I'm making a point here about the difficulty in calculating the statistics about rape, not about the definition of rape (although the definition itself changes what's included in the statistic). The dark number in the number of rapes in the US is the difference between actual, reported rapes and the postulated unreported rapes.
All this is to set up some of my meandering thoughts on the dark numbers of capitalist society. I've wondered about some of the statistics that are difficult to calculate about our economy. The so-called "black economy" includes illegal gambling, prostitution, illegal drug trade, and other things. These services and items must make up a portion of our economy but it's difficult to calculate because of their illegal nature.
Another point that intregues me about statistics concerning the economy is the way an action or task becomes classified depending on who does it and whether paid labor is involved. An example is changing the oil in my car. I don't know how to do it. However I could do it with a little help from a manual. Oh, and I have to dispose of the used oil properly. And my unfamiliarity would probably mean it would take quite a bit longer than an experienced serviceperson, particularly the first time. Taking all that into account, I opt to pay $15 or so to have it done. It's easier for me. The point being by paying someone else to do it, the money enters the economy. If I do it myself, the cost of the oil is the only expense. OK, it's not the best example but it hints at what I'm talking about.
Maybe I'm just nattering about inconsequential details concerning the economy but there's this concept I have that part of how the economy works is our collusion with it, our implicit agreement with certain ways of transacting tasks and services. Also the way the same task will transmute from free to paid depending on location. I pour myself a glass of water at home, free. I go to a restaurant, water is poured for me by a waiter, I'll ultimately pay for it with the cost of my meal and tip. I'd be perfectly happy to get up and get a pitcher of water and pour it myself but I might even be stopped by the staff if I tried.
I don't feel I'm communicating this very effectively. Maybe I'll take another stab at it later.