Can We Rely on the Executive Branch for Unsullied Data?
Some things just never seem to change from year to year, from decade to decade, or even from century to century. The great novelist Mark Twain, an unremitting source for timeless observations of the human condition, once summed up the problem that Americans of all political persuasions, ages, and income levels face when dealing with their own government: "There are lies, damned lies, and statistics."
Poll after poll has shown the economy, and in particular the unemployment picture, as being the dominant issue in almost all political conversation. Everyone would agree that the key information needed for any sort of intelligent conversation is the unemployment rate.
Lots of luck with that. As one of my professors in college once said in class, "there is data, and there is information. Never get those two things confused."
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) -- which, keep in mind, is part of the Department of Labor, which in turn is headed by the Honorable Linda Solis as secretary of labor -- is part of the Obama administration. Since the Department of Labor is part of one of the most partisan administrations in recent memory, how can anyone simply assume that the data that issues from the BLS is completely untainted by politics? On the other hand, the Congressional Budget Office has a noted and honorable history of being completely nonpartisan, doing yeoman's service in supplying data to Congress to help the members draft rational legislation.
Note that the CBO does not supply information, which is an interpretation of data, but merely the data itself.
With this in mind, here is a suggestion for Congress. Congress is a co-equal branch of government with the president and the Supreme Court, and as such, Congress does not need the approval of either of the two other branches when it chooses to reorganize itself. So there is no way Obama can threaten a veto, nor can the Supremes question the constitutionality, of actions that Congress takes that impact only Congress itself. Well, directly impact only Congress itself. The impact on the rest of the nation and government would likely be seismic.
Congress should create a Bureau of Data Integrity. Let this BDI act as the umbrella agency for not only the CBO, but also for the BLS and the equivalent data-collection and summarization functions of any department of the executive branch that might be problematic in terms of accuracy, consistency, or politicization. The existence and reputation of the CBO itself is evidence that such a feat is possible.
The goal of such a Bureau of Data Integrity would be to assure all the players, be they Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Tea Partiers, or Progressives, that when the unemployment figure (or any other recurring data, such as the national debt) for a time period is announced, there will not be pages and pages of footnotes, many of which are based on assumptions, adjustments, and interpretations that are completely incomprehensible or merely obscure.
It is tremendously frustrating to constantly be told that the unemployment rate for the prior month is such-and-such, followed by caveats about season adjustments and reporting that ignores the total numbers of job-seekers, whether active or not; the participation rate in the workforce; and so on. A headline that reads "Unemployment Unexpectedly Drops to 3%" is as useless as one that states that "Unemployment Unexpectedly Rises to 13%."
Knowing that the source data for either headline lies in a realm dominated by politics is not the best way to provide confidence to anyone, be he the president, a member of the Senate or House, or one of the Joe-the-Plumber guys who are trying to decide whether to hire an additional employee or not.
The most pressing need, of course, is the integrity of data concerning the economy. As such, the BLS should be the first to transfer out of the executive branch -- but only the first. Similar functions in the Departments of Commerce, Energy, Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Education, and Health and Human Services (HHS) should follow as soon as possible.
Jim Yardley is a retired financial controller for manufacturing firms, a Vietnam veteran, and an independent voter. Jim blogs at http://jimyardley.wordpress.com, or he can be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.