April 15, 2011

· Data · Economics · Politics · Sociology

I saw this report go by on the Twitter saying that, in the wake of the latest budget deal, the Census Bureau is planning on eliminating the Statistical Abstract of the United States, pretty much the single most useful informational document the Government produces. The report says,

When readying the FY2011 budget, the Census Bureau tapped teams to do thorough, systematic program reviews looking for efficiencies and cost savings. Priorities for programs were set according to mission criticality, and some cuts were made to the economic statistics program. According to Tom Mesenbourg, deputy director of the Census Bureau, “difficult choices had to be made” in order to reduce expenditures on existing programs and move forward with new initiatives in FY2012. Core input data that the Bureau of Economic Analysis relies on to produce the National Income and Product Account tables, for example, would be retained. New data sets needed to be added to the Census of Government regarding state and local government pensions (e.g., cost of post-retirement employee benefits). In addition, FY2012 requires funding for the planning stages of the 2012 Economic Census; data collection begins in 2013. So what’s left to cut? It was felt that the popular *Statistical Abstract of the United States*—the “go to” reference for those who don’t know whether a statistic is available, let alone which agency/department is responsible for it—could be sacrificed. Staff will be moving to “Communications,” digitizing the data set. It is hoped that the private sector—commercial publishers—-will see the benefit of publishing some version of the title in the future.

Bleah. When it comes to the United States, the print and online versions of the SA are a peerless source of information for all your bullshit remediation needs. What’s the median household income? What does the distribution of family debt liability look like? How many people are in prison? How many flights were late, got diverted, or crashed in the past few years? How many women hold public office? What sort of families get food stamps? Who does and doesn’t have health insurance? What percentage of households own a cat, a dog, a bird, or a horse? (The fish lobby seem to have lost out on that one.)

In his early days as a pundit, Paul Krugman got a fair amount of mileage from columns that consisted mostly of taking some claims about the U.S. trade balance or industrial structure, looking up the relevant table in the Abstract, and calling bullshit on the claim-maker. (Of course, that was in those far-off days when all this were nowt but fields, Krugman was still a Real Economist—i.e., he had yet to win the Nobel Prize in Economics, or say rude things about Republican economic and social policy—and he patrolled the boundaries of his profession against the incursions of pop internationalists.) So, properly used, the SA might even make you famous.

In the meantime, maybe this is all a feint or post-budget posturing by the Census Bureau. I have no idea. But I really do hope the abstract doesn’t go away anytime soon, or become the property of some gobdaw publisher looking to sell me tabulations of data the government has already collected using public money.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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