October 6, 2012 Leave a comment
Yesterday morning shortly before the jobs numbers I thought to myself, well if ever there a time to manipulate the numbers, this would be it. Then I thought, thank God we live in a country where the government cannot just manipulate information like that to serve its interests (top secret intelligence about foreign WMD threats, aside).
Now, I’m no expert on BLS data, but I do know enough to know that it’s highly trusted (if not highly accurate in the short term) and that it would be ludicrous to criticize it without actually understanding how the data comes about.
Did I say ludicrous? And shameful, too. That didn’t stop a number or Republicans from doing just that, as documented by Think Progress. Not surprisingly, a bunch of them were on Fox News.
Ezra explains how the data comes about and how it would be very difficult to actually manipulate. Maybe Fox News types should actually learn something before spouting off. Right.
Meanwhile, Politico highlights a number of sane Republicans (yes, there are some left) remarking on just how absurd this all is.
In the end, I’ll turn to my original point, because Yglesias make it more thoroughly and eloquently:
The real story about BLS data is how enormously credible it is. Financial markets, the press, opposition politicians, and everyone else almost uniformly takes it seriously. If anything, the national pathology is taking the month-by-month errors a little too seriously and not wrestling with sample error, modeling error, and the relatively large scale of revisions. Conspiracy theorists are rare enough to be newsworthy, and widely dismissed as conspiracy theorists.
But note that it doesn’t have to be this way. Nobody takes Chinese government economic data very seriously. If someone told you that Vladimir Putin was juicing jobs data ahead of a campaign, you wouldn’t dismiss him…
But while American presidents certainly do deploy the powers of incumbency (they’re not blind to the electoral map when they schedule cabinet secretaries’ travel) they don’t do it in this abusive way and the vast majority of people don’t believe they do it in that abusive way.
This is a remarkable fact and it’s a big part of what makes America great…
The result is a stable equilibrium that’s friendly to democracy and capitalist prosperity alike.
It’s not easy to achieve, but it’s important to achieve and it’s something we should celebrate about America. It’s also something that according to fashionable cyncism-drenched “public choice” accounts of government should be almost impossible. Politicians regularl engage in a rhetoric that suggests they believe public agencies will invariably perform poorly. But it’s not true and the fact that we have lots of great government agencies—the ones producing our federal statistical information not least among them—is part of the strength of America. Long story short, if your business relies on accurate credible statistical information in its planning, you didn’t build that.
Amen. This credibly economic data is undoubtedly an important public good. And to the degree that Fox News types work to undermine it’s credibility they are therefore damaging the very capitalist system they pretend to endorse. Truly shameful.