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November 25, 2018

Emotional innumeracy


November 25, 2018

“To be is to be perceived,” the 18th century Irish philosopher Bishop Berkeley once famously remarked. To date, refuting him has been the favourite pastime of realists, materialists and similar schools of thought.

While we may disagree with Berkeley in that the external world exists in its own right independent of being perceived, it is hard to deny that we constantly reconstruct the environment through selection, organisation and interpretation of sensory impressions. In particular, human behaviour is shaped by how the world is perceived, not what it really is.

Our perception of the world is strongly determined by such considerations as biases and prejudices, preconceived notions, cherished beliefs, needs and wants, and, to top it all, ignorance. As a result, people are prone to emotional innumeracy – the tendency to exaggerate or downplay the enormity of issues they are concerned about or those which concern them. By and large, we tend to underestimate important things and overestimate trivial things.

A classic example of emotional innumeracy is the remarks attributed to the 18th century Indian Emperor Muhammad Shah Rangila on the eve of Persian King Nader Shah’s invasion. When reminded by his aides from time to time that the enemy was upon them and that it was time they put their act together, the luxury-addict scion of the once-mighty Mughal Dynasty would shrug off the threat by remarking, rather nonchalantly, that Delhi, the seat of the empire, was still very far from the invading forces – “Hunooz Dilli door ast”. In a matter of days, Nader Shah sacked and plundered Delhi, which set off the process of disintegration that led to the fall of the empire.

Another textbook example of emotional innumeracy was set by our leadership during the events preceding the fall of Dhaka in December 1971. Until the last nail was dug into the coffin of a united Pakistan, the leadership continued downplaying the crisis.

Emotional innumeracy lies at the root of several myths in vogue in present-day Pakistan, notably those pertaining to corruption. If a question was put to young, educated Pakistanis about what, in their view, constituted the nation’s most significant problem, the answer in nine out of 10 cases will be ‘corruption’. If a similar sample was asked who they believed was the most corrupt lot, nine out of 10 respondents will point the finger at politicians. Both these answers are examples of emotional innumeracy.

Corruption, no doubt, is a major social problem. But what’s the exact scale of corruption? How much of our GDP is misappropriated every year in the form of corruption? Well, the answer depends on which side of the political or social divide you happen to be on. If the respondents are in thrall of the PTI’s narrative, their answer will be in the billions or even trillions.

A few years back, the head of the National Accountability Bureau had, in an off-the-cuff remark, put the corruption figure in the country at Rs7 billion a day. The figure – which amounted to Rs2.55 trillion or about $27 billion a year, given the then exchange rate – was fairly off the mark. But it was readily picked up by the PTI and other opposition parties. It is doubtful if any authoritative study has ever identified the precise level of corruption in the country.

So, answers regarding the scale of corruption are, at best, guesses that tend to blow the issue out of proportion. Understandably, most people subscribe to the graft narrative, but almost no one can admit that they themselves are drawn towards corruption. Businesses believe that the public sector is corrupt to the bone; civil servants see politicians as the villain of the piece, and so on.

In the past, governments were dismissed on the charges of gross corruption, which were never proved. At the turn of the century, Imran Khan made the anti-graft campaign the bedrock of his politics. Thenceforth, corruption has assumed centre-stage in public discourse.

An organic kernel of the anti-graft narrative is the view that white-collar crooks stashed away huge foreign exchange, to the tune of $200 billion, in banks overseas. God knows how the $200 billion figure was contrived, as no authoritative source has ever documented the actual size of such bank deposits. However, given the size of Pakistan’s economy, the $200 billion figure seems to be exaggerated. But this magical figure has been used with tremendous fondness by anti-graft crusaders. The PTI, in particular, has made great play with it and held that if this amount is brought back, the nation’s capital crunch will be over once and for all. Now that the party is in power, it must have dawned upon it that the $200 billion lying in foreign bank vaults is no more than a piece of fictional ingenuity.

Very recently, the federal information minister, who is known for his no-holds-barred approach, told the Senate that over the past one decade, Balochistan received Rs42 trillion, which comes to Rs4.2 trillion a year, from the central government. The figures reported by the minister fly in the face of the size of the total public revenue.

As reported by the Pakistan Economic Survey, the cumulative revenue earned by federal and provincial governments in 2010-11 and 2016-17 was Rs2.25 trillion and Rs4.93 trillion, respectively. One need not be a genius to infer that the minister drew the longbow to drive home the ruling party’s thesis that graft lies at the root of the province’s backwardness. What a swizz!

Another related issue is the relationship between corruption and economic growth. The PTI would have the nation believe that corruption accounts for most of Pakistan’s macroeconomic problems, such as slow economic growth. In particular, the party argues, corruption rose under the PML-N government (2013-18). Is this the case?

The most commonly cited index of corruption in the world is Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI), which ranks countries as per the perceived level of corruption in their public sectors. While the index itself may be faulty for drawing conclusions on the basis of perception, let’s take it as credible for the sake of argument.

If corruption and economic growth were casually connected, the years of relatively higher growth must also see an improved CPI ranking. Going by this logic in 2006, which saw the highest GDP growth of 6.2 percent in recent years, Pakistan’s CPI ranking should be the best over this period. However, in 2006, Pakistan had the second worst CPI ranking of 142. Between 2006 and 2012, Pakistan’s CPI ranking was in the range of 134 to 143. Contrary to the PTI’s narrative, during last five years (2013-2017), the country’s ranking went up, as it remained between 116 and 127.

Emotional innumeracy runs in terms of both exaggerated and understated data. A textbook example of emotional innumeracy in the latter form was set by the federal information minister, who, while defending the use of chopper by the prime minister for intra-Islamabad movement, declared that the travel cost only Rs55 per kilometre. This makes air transport cheaper than other modes.

Although it seems to be an oxymoron, emotional innumeracy may, at times, be a form of rational behaviour. This can be attributed to two reasons. First, gathering correct information is often a painstaking process. People have no incentive to go through the rigmarole of collecting information if they are convinced they can do little about the issue at hand. Second, it stands some quarters in good stead if certain social myths continue to hold sway over the people’s imagination. For such people, thumbing their noses at facts isn’t necessarily symptomatic of ignorance. However, such myths may make society skimp on the real issues.

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @hussainhzaidi

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