I’d like to put in a good word for the federal statistical agencies. Especially when people are so divided over policy, nothing is more important than a solid and trusted basis of facts.
Early in my career, I worked for a business magazine. Among my jobs was writing forecasts of pricing and lead time trends for various industrial commodities: Engineered rubber O-rings, #1 heavy melt scrap metal, tapered roller bearings, fractional horsepower electric motors, paint — those kinds of things.
The United States is still a nation where people make things. Even Teslas, stuffed as they might be with virtuous batteries, are made of steel, a dozen other metals, coatings, glass, and plastics, all of which were mined, melted, extruded, forged, cast, sprayed, stamped, molded or rolled into bodies, seats, motors, windows, knobs, hinges, circuit boards and wheels by people in overalls and hard hats working in noisy, machine-filled factories using 3-phase electricity, natural gas, and coal. Someone in Tesla makes detailed plans for on-time delivery of every one of those supplies, and they depend in part on federal statistics to do so.
I learned early on to use federal statistics. I would pore over the Bureau of Labor Statistics monthly releases. This was decades before online, so they arrived as magazine-sized paper publications. I learned how vital reliable statistics really are to business planning, forecasting, basically understanding what’s going on in the economy and trade.
The government is not the sole producer of statistics. Trade groups also provide regular statistics on their specific industries. I remember checking on trends kept by a tin cartel that later went bust when the can industry went from tinplate to aluminum. These numbers can be indispensable, but they’re only part of the picture.
When it comes to public policy, Lord knows politicians never get much right. So its crucial that the data on which they make policy is at least incontrovertible. You know the old saying about facts and opinions.
Thus a crucial government role in industry and in many other national endeavors is the production of accurate and widely-shared knowledge of the metrics of national life. Not just about business but also about crime, housing, population makeup, agricultures … just look at that list of agencies.
This came to mind when I interviewed Katherine Wallman, who for 25 years served as the federal chief statistician. She was also president of the American Statistical Association. Wallman, and association and many others concerned with statistics are sounding alarms about the state of statistical agencies. As the ASA and the American Association for the Advancement of Science put it, others put it in this release, we all have “the necessity for more timely, granular and unimpeachably objective information about employment, economic growth, poverty, educational achievement, crime victimization, agricultural production and energy use.”
Wallman has co-authored a paper calling on the Biden administration and Congress to bolster the federal statistical agencies. For example, the supporting organizations blame the Trump administration for interfering with the Census Bureau in the 2020 count. One step would restore Senate confirmation of the Census director, which went away in 2012. The general idea, though, is more autonomy and sufficient funding for statistical agencies, and giving them the resources to launch new data series and analytical products.
Our conversation reminded me of a passage from the novel “1984,” so frequently cited these days:
“… the Ministry of Plenty’s forecast had estimated the output of boots for the quarter at one-hundred-and-forty-five million pairs. The actual output was given as sixty-two millions. Winston, however, in rewriting the forecast, marked the figure down to fifty-seven millions, so as to allow for the usual claim that the quota had been overfulfilled. In any case, sixty-two millions was no nearer the truth than fifty-seven millions, or than one-hundred-and-forty-five millions. Very likely no boots had been produced at all. Likelier still, nobody knew how many had been produced, much less cared. All one knew was that every quarter astronomical numbers of boots were produced on paper, while perhaps half the population of Oceania went barefoot.”
The pandemic is a great case in point for why statistics are so important. Sloppy and disjointed as the national response has been, how much worse if no one knew precisely where and how deeply the virus was hitting. But nearly every policy decision the government makes is based on statistics.
In describing the dystopian Oceania, Orwell added, “And so it was with every class of recorded fact, great or small. Everything faded away into a shadow-world in which, finally, even the date of the year had become uncertain.”