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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Statistical Abstract -- RIP?

Our chapter on bureaucracy explains that one of its major functions is the collection and publication of statistics. Robert Samuelson writes at The Washington Post that the Commerce Department is planning to cease publication of The Statistical Abstract of the United States.The reason: budget pressure.

So, the agency's 2012 budget would eliminate the Statistical Compendia Branch, which compiles the Stat Abstract and other publications (example: the "County and City Data Book"). The cut: $2.9 million and 24 jobs. Both the book and online versions of the Stat Abstract would vanish. This is a mighty big loss for a mighty small saving.

It can be argued that much of what's in the Stat Abstract is online somewhere. True -- but irrelevant. Many government and private databases are hard to access and search, even if you know what you want. Often, you don't. The Stat Abstract has two great virtues. First, it conveniently presents in one place a huge amount of information from a vast array of government and private sources. For example, the National Fire Protection Association tells us that 30,170 fire departments fought 1.45 million fires in 2008. Second, the footnotes show where to get more information.

Also at The Post, E.J. Dionne writes:

The statistics-gathering capability is of our government is one of its underappreciated functions, and our government discharges this responsibility extremely well. In doing so, it not only helps journalists who thrive on facts (or at least we ought to) but also businesses, teachers and researchers of all kinds. And the Stat Abstract is an example of something else government ought to do: It democratizes knowledge by making enormous amounts of information comprehensible and easily accessible.

I was introduced to the Statistical Abstract many years ago by a great journalist, Jack Rosenthal of the New York Times. Jack, who later became the paper’s editorial page editor, had a gift for producing remarkable newspaper stories just out one or two interesting numbers, although he loves to gobble up numbers in much larger quantities. Jack persuaded me, and I still believe it, that many of the best news stories are right there before our eyes. You just have to find them in the publicly available data.

And the death of the Stat Abstract reminds us that it’s while it’s easy to talk about big cuts government spending, even cuts in supposedly “non-essential” spending can hurt and have unfortunate effects. No, I’m not defending every penny the government spends, but be wary of claims that this or that reduction is “an easy cut.” Sometimes, cuts are easier than they look.