Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Save the Statistical Abstract

It's really not often that I agree with (or have anything nice to say about) Paul Krugman, but today is no ordinary day. As part of the ongoing idiocy in Washington that insists on slashing low-cost social programs (many of which--like NPR--have quite high incremental benefits to society) while leaving the high-cost items (defense, Medicare, Social Security) untouched, Krugman notes that the annual "Statistical Abstract of the United States" is set for the deficit-cutting chopping block after next year, a fact that he and many others bemoan. As Robert J. Samuelson wrote for the Washington Post,
If you want to know something about America, there are few better places to start than the “Statistical Abstract of the United States.” Published annually by the Census Bureau, the Stat Abstract assembles about 1,400 tables describing our national condition. What share of children are immunized against measles, mumps and rubella? Answer: 92 percent. What state has the highest disposable per capita income? Answer: Connecticut, 33 percent above the national average. How big is the nation’s network of oil pipelines? Answer: 147,000 miles, about triple the length of the Interstate Highway System (46,751 miles).
I am a devoted fan of the Stat Abstract. In four decades of reporting, I have grabbed it thousands of times to find a fact, tutor myself or answer a pressing question. Its figures are usually the start of a story, not the end. They suggest paths of inquiry, including the meaning and reliability of the statistics themselves (otherwise, they can mislead or tell false tales). The Stat Abstract has been a stalwart journalistic ally. With some interruptions, the government has published it since 1878.
No more. The Stat Abstract is headed for the chopping block. The 2012 edition, scheduled for publication later this year, will be the last, unless someone saves it.
In the next months and years, we will stumble across countless examples of good government coming to grief. Budget pressures will force cutbacks and cancellations. Many will be desirable and overdue: programs that don’t work, have outlived their usefulness or favor the undeserving. But some will represent valuable activities that were reluctantly or foolishly eliminated to meet budget targets. The Stat Abstract’s fate belongs in this category.
I am of course on record here as a staunch supporter of balanced budgets and sustainable fiscal policy (and, to a degree, a limited role of the federal government). But I am also on record as saying that it is absolutely foolish and self-defeating to try to balance a budget by slashing the small items and leaving the big ones untouched. You can't balance a household budget by decreasing your food intake but buying a bigger car, and yet that's exactly what we're trying to do here. Sooner or later, you'll starve, and your car won't help you solve that problem.

One of the few things that sets first-world economies apart from their second and third-world counterparts is the publication and wide availability of information and statistics. As Krugman points out, the elimination of the Statistical Abstract would go a long way toward creating a more ignorant populace, which is never a good thing for a country's long-term outlook.

For a Presidential administration that ran on a platform of transparency and availability of data, letting the Abstract die would be a particularly ironic and tragic event. It's not hard to imagine a future world where what was once public information has become the exclusive domain of a select few privileged people--and that may be exactly what those (Republican... corporate... rich...) people want. For a truly free society to exist, the democratization and freedom of information is of paramount importance--an ignorant country is a weak country.

Hey, Warren Buffett, maybe you should open up your checkbook and pony up a couple million bucks to save this one, huh? I won't hold my breath... 


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