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Posted at 11:28 AM ET, 10/04/2011

Farewell, Statistical Abstract

The Census Bureau has just published the 2012 edition of the “Statistical Abstract of the United States” — which, barring a minor miracle, will be the last. Census didn’t include the Stat Abstract (as it’s known to its many fans) in the 2012 budget, and Congress hasn’t seen fit to overrule the agency. So it’s curtains for the Stat Abstract. I’ve been covering government for more than four decades, and this is one of the worst decisions I’ve seen. That’s why I devoted a column to it six weeks ago and why I’m returning to it now.

Let me be clear. The Republic will survive. Most people never use the Stat Abstract, and those who do will compensate, for better or worse. There are many, many much bigger issues. But in its own small way, the Stat Abstract’s fate demonstrates what’s wrong with government. One reason (not the only reason) that people are upset with government is that they can’t figure out what it’s doing or learn what they need to know. They get frustrated trying to penetrate the layers of agencies, committees, rules, proclamations and reports.

The Stat Abstract eases that problem slightly by assembling a broad array of tables in single spot so that people who need information can find it faster. This simplifies government and makes it more user-friendly. Killing the Stat Abstract makes government less friendly: that is, more remote and hostile. Surely, that is not what the Obama administration intends, but that will be the result.

Losing the Abstract will also reduce the value of the entire federal statistics enterprise. In 2012, government will spend a little less than $3 billion collecting numbers that describe everything from annual egg production to drivers’ blood alcohol levels in fatal crashes. The Stat Abstract is a main portal by which experts and laypeople alike find numbers to write college papers, to analyze social conditions, to make marketing decisions ... and much more. If the numbers become less accessible — as is certain — their value will decline.

Producing the Stat Abstract costs a little less than $3 million a year. That’s one-thousandth the cost of all federal statistics. If the Stat Abstract’s elimination reduces the value of statistics by more than one-thousandth, there’s a net loss to society. What’s more, even budgetary “savings” may prove phony. Without the handy Stat Abstract, many frustrated Americans will e-mail and call Census and other statistical agencies (the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the like) to find needed information. Government analysts will be more harried. Either more will need to be hired (bye-bye “savings”) or less other work will get done.

It’s true that Census faces, as do many agencies, intense budget pressures. The Obama administration submitted a 2012 budget for the agency of slightly more than $1 billion. House and Senate committees shaved that by 17 percent and 9 percent, respectively. But the budget squeeze partly reflects the administration’s unwillingness to make basic choices — to end programs that stretch government’s competence and make room for valuable government activities that are demonstrably successful.

Here’s what I mean: The Census Bureau is part of the Commerce Department. Just as Census was publishing the last Stat Abstract, Commerce proudly announced on its Web site federal grants totaling $12 million to companies under the “i6 Green Challenge” program to stimulate the commercialization of new “green” technologies. Government is not very good at playing venture capitalist. The collapse of Solyndra, the solar-panel company that received a $535 million federal loan guarantee, ought to have reminded us of that.

Do the arithmetic. The $12 million sent to the six “green” companies would more than cover the costs of publishing four years of Stat Abstracts. By embracing expensive, politically fashionable agendas — programs that have more to do with partisan bragging rights than sound policy — the Obama administration rewards bad government and penalizes good government.

By Robert J.Samuelson  |  11:28 AM ET, 10/04/2011

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