Humanizing numbers in order to gain a more realistic view of modern society is becoming popular among social scientists, including Commerce Secretary Juanita M. Kreps.
Before she arrived at the department, however, the statistical staff began pushing for funds to make possible the analysis of already available demographic data and to gather additional information on the quality of life.
Chief economist Courtenay M. Slater, who oversees both the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Economic Analysis, explained that the Census Bureau proposed the development of a social indicators index to provide a better picture of life in the U.S. than the clues given by the index of leading economic indicators. The Bureau of Economic Analysis advocated the addition of regular quality-of-life measurements to its workload.
"Census never really developed an analytic staff to mine the detailed data that already exist in the bureau from existing surveys," she said. "We have information on income distribution, education levels, where people live. But to take the ongoing statistics and do analyses on them - on how often individual families move in and out of poverty, for example - takes money."
The Conference Appropriations Committee accepted a Senate recommendation to fund the Census project for fiscal 1978 and approved the quality of life measurement, but did not give BEA any money with which to carry it out. The House had rejected the department's budget requests for both programs.
"It won't be easy," Slater said, "but we're trying to shift the budget around to fit both programs in."
As Slater explained it, the economic effects of demographic changes can be substantial, but until they are tracked regularly there is no way to rate their importance accurately.
The Congressional probing about BEA's proposed quality-of-life measures bridled Slater and other staff economists. "They were accusing us of trying to measure the unmeasurable, like whether or not a housewife is unhappy," she said.
"But that's not true. Our proposal is for a budget to analyze solid, quantitative things, but items that don't enter into the GBP accounts - like the value of consumer capital (accumulated cars, homes, boats, etc) which would be useful to determine the status of the economy and the standard of living of Americans. The value of volunteer labor, for instance, has never been measured, and yet a vast number of non profit agencies, including community hospitals and charitable agencies, could not operate without volunteers."
Slater was the senior economist of the congressional Joint Economic Committee and of the Council of Economic Advisers prior to her Commerce appointment in March.
Two recent decisions - one by the White House and one taken on the Hill - are expected to broaden the scope and authority of Slater's position.
The White House reorganization will shift the office of Statistical Policy from Office of Management and Budget to the Commerce Department where the most likely spot for it to nest is under the wing of the chief economist.
As Slater explained it, the OSP unit is the mechanism used to coordinate the national statistical system, to avoid duplications among agencies and to set data-collection and reporting standards.
While the official announcement concerning OSP has yet to be made, Slater conceded that if it is incorporated into her division, "It would be quite an exciting opportunity to get involved in statistical policy and to try to improve the federal statistical system."
A bill introduced at the Commerce Department's request by Sen. Abraham Ribicoff (D-Conn.) would return the office of chief economist to tenture of Elliott Richardson as Commerce Secretary.
While that would not change the nature of the economist's job substantially, "It will make it a presidential appointment which requires confirmation by the Senate," Slater said.
Richardson had made the post a secretarial appointment rather than a Presidential nomination in order to create an additional policy position for a trusted aide. Kreps' assistant secretary for policy, Jerry Jasinowski, would continue to work on a variety of policy issues, including some strictly economic ones, if the chief economist's position is changed, but Slater would be an assistant secretary for economic affairs or economic statistical affairs, department sources said.
"One reason for restoring it to an assistant secretaryship is to give it the proper kind of congressional control that it should have," Slater said. "It is a policy position, a political appointment, and there's is no need to disguise that fact."