WE'D LIKE YOU to spend a little time worrying about the declining accuracy and quality of government statistics. Yes, we know that curling up with a fat tome of government statistics is not your idea of a good way to spend Saturday night. But government numbers -- good or bad -- can make a big difference in such very important things as the job you hold, the income you have and the prices you pay. That's because the many people who do use government statistics in government and industry make important decisions based upon them.
The reason for concern is that the basic statistics- gathering agencies of the federal government have already sustained substantial cuts in their operating budgets, and, as the struggle to narrow the deficit continues, they are likely to face still more. Statistics, after all, are cold-blooded items not likely to inspire the sort of public concern required to mount an effective campaign for their protection. To the untrained eye, it's even hard to detect when a statistic has been mortally wounded -- after all a number looks like a number even if it no longer shows what it purports to show.
Consider, for example, the quarterly GNP estimate -- the basic measure of whether the country's economic output is increasing or decreasing. That number affects innumerable marketing and investment decisions. It is a composite of several hundred different measures. Errors in these can compound to a degree that initial GNP estimates may be wrong not only in size but even in direction -- things may actually be getting better when they seem to be getting worse and vice versa.
Some degree of uncertainty is, of course, unavoidable in any statistic. But all the important measures of economic activity -- income, prices, wages, employment, productivity -- need improvement. Upgrading these numbers is particularly important at a time when government policy is not only changing rapidly but when the economy itself is undergoing fundamental changes in structure. Instead, current plans call for less data on such important things as the prices and employment in the fast-growing service sector, local economic conditions, changes in job markets and the distribution of private income and government benefits.
The money saved by these cutbacks -- and the additional funds needed for improvements -- is so small in the overall scale of social and defense spending that the administration's neglect of these matters has to be attributed to mangement inattention rather than frugality. That's very shortsighted. The administration has staked a great deal on the success of its economic policies, and it ought to want the very best information it can get on how they are working. And so should you.