Sure, bully for President Trump for caring about helping real people (people with faces!) rather than statistics (notoriously lacking in faces). But numbers are the best tool we have for assessing whether he ultimately lives up to that promise to help as many Americans (and their visages) as possible.
Refusing to accept any quantitative baseline measure for where the job market stands today — however imperfect any number in isolation may be, and remember, we have lots of available metrics to help give the picture more nuance — can serve only to prevent being held accountable later on. If Trump never agrees to the terms used to measure success, he can never fail. Four years from now, the job market will simply be better because he says it’s better.
All of which is to say that data matters. Specifically, having good data matters. Which brings me to development No. 2.
Trump on Monday signed a memorandum to freeze the hiring of federal civilian employees across the board in the executive branch. Military personnel were exempted, as were any positions that the heads of any executive department deem “necessary to meet national security or public safety responsibilities.”
Almost immediately, I wondered about one particular category of federal civilian employees whose numbers need to ramp up very, very soon: people who work on the decennial census. You know, that little statistical collection effort required by our Constitution.
The bulk of the additional hiring will come in 2019 and 2020, but the Census Bureau needs to start staffing up this year as it develops and tests materials and collection processes.
The 2017 Economic Census is also heading into peak cycle years in 2017-2018 and will likely require additional cyclical personnel to work on data processing and tabulation, among other activities, according to Terri Ann Lowenthal of the Census Project. The (quinquennial) Economic Census collects baseline data for the nation’s key economic indicators, including gross domestic product.
Today’s presidential memorandum does not specifically exempt decennial census workers from the hiring freeze. It says the “Director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) may grant exemptions from this freeze where those exemptions are otherwise necessary.”
“Necessary” is not defined.
My hope is that Wilbur Ross — Trump’s pick for secretary of commerce, which oversees the Census Bureau — will impress upon the president the necessity for both policymakers and businesses of having good, solid, reliable public data. As Ross mentioned in his confirmation hearings, he actually worked as a census taker while in business school (!). He also said that he learned in business that “anything you can’t measure you can’t manage.”
In this administration, that may be a feature, not a bug.