In this age of Big Data, the Obama administration seems determined to make it hard for average Americans to get little data. Recall that in 2011, the Census Bureau decided to eliminate “The Statistical Abstract of the United States,” first published in 1878. This was the nation’s best compilation of figures on hundreds of topics, ranging from birth rates to forest fires to wage rates to voting patterns. The Census Bureau said that it couldn’t afford the Stat Abstract (the savings were trivial, about $3 million) and that most figures were online.
True. But this doesn’t mean that people can get them easily. You have to know where online to go. (The sources were dozens of government agencies, many private industry groups and survey organizations.) You also have to know how to manipulate the databases to retrieve the desired statistics. Overcoming these problems often requires a large investment of time and much frustration.
The lesson wasn’t learned.
The president’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) has now committed the same blunder. For decades, the annual report of the CEA has contained an enormously valuable statistical annex of about 100 tables; in the 2013 report, there were 112. In 45 years of reporting, I have relied on the CEA’s statistical annex as a basic source of economic information. Nothing else approached its ease of use, clarity and length of the statistical series, often covering four or five decades. The latest CEA report eliminates three-quarters of the tables. It calls this purge a “streamlining” and offers the same explanation: The data are online.
Here are some tables that got the ax: historical stock market prices; farm output and productivity; average maturity of Treasury debt securities; labor force participation rates by demographic group; national income by type of income (wages, salaries, profits, rents, etc.); U.S. trade by geographic markets. The list goes on.
Again, Web sites are not good substitutes for the old-fashioned tables. True, the CEA usefully prints sources for all the eliminated tables. The implication is that it’s a snap to duplicate them from the Internet. Not so.
Take the first table on my list above: stock prices. For starters, there are four sources for the table: the New York Stock Exchange; Dow Jones & Co.; Standard & Poor’s Financial Services; and the Nasdaq Stock Market. Beginning with the New York Stock Exchange, I type https://nyse.nyx.com and get its home page. There’s no obvious link to data back to the 1960s and earlier. I click on “NYSE composite,” the desired price index. This provides today’s index move. Again, no obvious link to historic data. It’s not clear how long it would take to reconstruct a table that the CEA had routinely produced.
To be fair, the CEA faces budget pressures (it says its budget is down about 20 percent from the peak) and some historical statistical series are revised after being printed in the annual report. Also, the CEA has a monthly publication, “Economic Indicators,” that provides data going back a decade for some of the statistics. But these are footnotes that do not justify the CEA’s wholesale statistical slaughter.
The remedy here is obvious: Undo the deed. Given human nature — which loathes admitting error — this seems unlikely.
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