I studied “Commercial Engineer” in Chile, a nice mixture between Economics and Business Administration, a professional degree that taking psychological theory, mathematics, economical theory, operations research, marketing, law principles, among other sciences, studies and disciplines, is designed to turn you into a professional manager in a market based economy. I was trained to constantly check for some figures to note the state of the art in an organisation or in the society as a hole.
Like a pilot certain of the instruments in an airplane, I was trained to follow goals and deal with situations and decisions that could be translated into numbers and figures. After all, mathematics is like a shower in pure, warm, perfumed waters: a revitalising bath, a lullaby of pureness when it comes to ideas. Saying something in the beautiful, mythical, pure language of mathematicians brings immediately the illusion of pureness and undoubted truth.
Like that, since I was 18 years old, I was introduced into the concept of, for example, Economic Equilibrium under the interpretation of classical economists like Smith and Ricardo, but going even further with the application of this kind of concepts to every imaginable economic problem, either in a macro or micro level. Notions of equilibrium levels, surplus, prices, income or production were quickly set into the true lighthouses to follow in my head along my undergraduate studies. But I was not the only one.
Since the 70’s, with the begin of a neoliberal regime in the country, economists became the new superstars in Chile. Not priests, not militaries, not politicians, not sociologists, not scientists or artists of any kind held the truth and the key of the future in their speeches but economists.
Economists were armed with swords made of the purest material: numbers delivered from complex mathematical systems. This impression grew in Chilean society since those times, and it seems to be also one of the things that finally exploded with this crisis: We were doped with numbers, totally high on them. Trusting in them unquestionably, Chileans got used to receive periodical information about the evolution of numbers to understand not only the evolution of production or inflation, the evolution of economy as a hole, but the evolution of every social aspect. Moreover, we got used to measure with the instruments of economists and engineers our education system, our health system, the level of welfare of our society, the quality of our scientific and cultural production, and even our own level of happiness.
The increase in consumption during the 90’s, low unemployment, relatively (in relation to Latin America) high salaries, low inflation and an amazing reduction on the poverty rate were only some of the figures that captured the most our attention, probably because they brought us the most satisfaction.
1992, 1 year after I was born, Chilean GDP grew a 11,2%, a number that filled with expectations the heart of everyone. The new democratic government was decided to continue with the neoliberal strategy of economic development imposed by Pinochet. Chilean GDP grew the following years meeting our hopes and making us think that our dreams were closer to us. GDP growth meant, at least in our expectations, better retirement (which in a private pension system depends highly in the returns of the investments), better health, more chances of owning a house, and welfare in general. Since 1992 till today, the poverty rate collapsed from nearly 40% of the population to less than 7%. Language it’s a witness of our attachment to figures. Till today, people in Chile say “Chile grew x%” instead of “Chilean production or Chilean economy grew xx%”.
At least most of the Chilean decision-making elite lived during decades under the idea of
following this (neoliberal) path we are achieving the most advanced levels of infrastructure in the (Latin American) continent, providing coverage of health and education in the highest rates and efficiency in our history, people purchasing power has never been so high before, poverty was never this low… And numbers don’t lie.
Most of the country fell under the spell of appealing numbers. The spell turned into an addiction, and soon a true “culture of numeralization” by private and public decision-makers (i.e. business and government) was set in all areas. Not only big policy makers and businessmen, numbers were soon required in making any decision. There is an economist (or a manager) ready to show you some numbers so you can decide about your private pension administrator, the school of your children, your private health social security, the politicians you like or dislike, what you should study, where should you buy, what (and who) to trust, etc.
A notable example is the website “mifuturo.cl” (my future), run (for many years now) by the Education Minister of the Government of Chile like part of a public policy designed to help students with deciding which path to follow in higher education after high school. It is not difficult to surf through the website that offers a huge historic data collection for the students so they can decide their careers. Facts and numbers, disaggregated by type of institution, institution, career, area of knowledge, and in a hundred different ways about employment rates, salaries and their evolution in time, duration of the careers, rates of failing, among many others, are carefully displayed so the students can take a decision of what to do after high school. No motivating material, speeches from known scholars or representatives of different studies and disciplines giving advice are available in mifuturo.cl. Not much also about what to expect working after pursuing one career or the other. Nothing about the working conditions, nothing about what you require to study it, other than average salaries and average PSU admission points. Nothing at all.
What is that numbers failed to detect?
The answer might be literally screaming at our own face. The demands of the social uprise are many and very diverse, but they all identify with the term “dignity”. It is not “equality” or “more something” what people are demanding. It is, trough many concrete policies, to live under a system that grants a good living not only in a material sense, but capable to provide with dignity to people.