I wish SteveB much success, but the minefield of economic and social statistics isn't as safe as coding Word.
“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics,” goes the quote attributed to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and popularized by Mark Twain. Then we have the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s invaluable, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts.”
I assume former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer had the second quote in mind when he launched his USAFacts government data site last month. He’s already planning an expansion. Partners include the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR), the Penn Wharton Budget Model, and Lynchburg College.
The free site states it “is a new data-driven portrait of the American population, our government’s finances, and government’s impact on society. We are a non-partisan, not-for-profit civic initiative and have no political agenda or commercial motive.”
Of course, readers will bring their own world views and values with them. This is especially true today in our Cold Civil War, where everything, including data, is weaponized.
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Thus, the $66.6 billion the site lists as the 2016 expenditure on food stamps (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP) is an outrage to someone on the right and shameful stinginess to progressives who would note $753 billion in defense spending.
Ballmer says people are giving him advice, so I’ll offer a couple of points.
First, hire some crusty old business-news copy editors. Plenty are out there considering newspapers have shed some 40 percent of their journalists since the recession. They would ask questions such as, “How big is that?” “Compared with what?” “Is this adjusted for inflation?” And “What’s the source?” This latter is said to be coming, and it had better be a gold-standard metric.
Facts can mislead. For example, USAFacts lists total spending in (fiscal?) 2o14 as $5.4 trillion. But it doesn’t immediately make clear that federal spending was around $3.9 trillion. Or that the U.S. economy was around $17.7 trillion at the same time. Or, as far as I could determine, spending per capita, adjusted for inflation, and compared with other advanced nations.
Second, consider a much more important mission: Creating an ark for government statistics, which have been refined over many years into the best (if not perfect) data we have. The Trump administration is taking down a wide range of data on everything from climate change to workplace safety violations. As with so much else in this White House, this is unprecedented — and dangerous. The availability and integrity of Census Bureau data might also come into question.
Serious nerds will find the best trove at the St. Louis Fed’s invaluable FRED site. It offers 489,000 data series, but don’t be intimidated. It’s easy to navigate, you can customize the data for comparison and measurement types, and the site has a useful blog. The Census offers its QuickFacts for states, counties, cities and towns, as well as the deep-dive American Community Survey.
I doubt that any minds will be changed. But it will be interesting to see how USAFacts progresses.
Today’s Econ Haiku:
Going out for lunch
Is a dying tradition?
My martini, please