Bob Samuelson and I don’t always agree, but I want to add my voice to the chorus of those who absolutely loved his Monday column calling on the government to reverse its decision to kill the Statistical Abstract of the United States, which is one of my favorite volumes.
And thanks to Bob for writing about this because many of us didn’t even know this year’s Stat Abstract will be the last unless the Census Bureau changes its mind -- or private funders step in. (Journalism, by the way, is supposed to work like that, telling us things we didn’t know.)
The statistics-gathering capability is of our government is one of its underappreciated functions, and our government discharges this responsibility extremely well. In doing so, it not only helps journalists who thrive on facts (or at least we ought to) but also businesses, teachers and researchers of all kinds. And the Stat Abstract is an example of something else government ought to do: It democratizes knowledge by making enormous amounts of information comprehensible and easily accessible.
I was introduced to the Statistical Abstract many years ago by a great journalist, Jack Rosenthal of the New York Times. Jack, who later became the paper’s editorial page editor, had a gift for producing remarkable newspaper stories just out one or two interesting numbers, although he loves to gobble up numbers in much larger quantities. Jack persuaded me, and I still believe it, that many of the best news stories are right there before our eyes. You just have to find them in the publicly available data.
And the death of the Stat Abstract reminds us that it’s while it’s easy to talk about big cuts government spending, even cuts in supposedly “non-essential” spending can hurt and have unfortunate effects. No, I’m not defending every penny the government spends, but be wary of claims that this or that reduction is “an easy cut.” Sometimes, cuts are easier than they look.
Ezra Klein praised Bob’s column earlier, and so did Paul Krugman on his New York Times blog. Here’s hoping that the campaign Bob has begun – it also, as Ezra points out, has a presence on Facebook – will succeed.