Obama: 1, Informed Public: 0
"The Statistical Abstract of the United States, published since 1878, is the authoritative and comprehensive summary of statistics on the social, political, and economic organization of the United States." That is how the Abstract describes itself. Click on this New York Post infographic to get a feel some of the data in the Abstract.
I first encountered the Abstract in 1979 while killing time in the college library. I was blown away. I had no idea such a thing existed: an entire book, a thick one, full of nothing but tables of data - relevant data. Instead of a little snippet or partial fact, the Abstract provided the whole context. You could find, for example, what the federal government actually spent, over history and in each category, in current dollars, inflation-adjusted dollars and as fractions of Gross Domestic Product.
Your knowledge of the world no longer had to rely on what 20 seconds CBS decided to quote from Senator X.
Ben Wattenberg explained one of his books this way:
"What I did in the book, as I've done in some earlier books, is say, 'Look, these arguments that we get into, be it about poverty, or race, or education, or infant mortality, or housing or whatever, people are ignoring the central numbers on these things.' You get the rhetoric of activists on either side and they are flailing around with this number or that number, but the reader, the observer, the participant rarely gets census reports, he doesn't get the reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, he doesn't sit down for a week with the statistical abstract of the United States, he doesn't get business indicators. So I designed 125 little, sort of, pocket-size charts. I made them lean and mean and just run them in a simple column so people --because people can get a little turned off by too many numbers."
I happen to be a person who is not turned off by too many numbers. In fact, I like looking things up myself, rather than relying on a middleman to interpret for me. I would spend hours at the library looking things up in the Abstract, since it could not be checked out. I spent countless nickels and dimes copying pages from it to take home for further analysis. One year I bought my own copy of the Abstract. They came out every year.
Then came the internet. The Abstract was right at my fingertips! I could even download the tables directly in Excel and calculate to my heart's content: averages, trends, comparing time periods, etc.
Here is what I encountered on the web site of the Abstract this morning:
"The U.S. Census Bureau is terminating the collection of data for the Statistical Compendia program effective October 1, 2011. The Statistical Compendium program is comprised of the Statistical Abstract of the United States and its supplemental products - - the State and Metropolitan Area Data Book and the County and City Data Book. In preparation for the Fiscal Year 2012 (FY 2012) budget, the Census Bureau did a comprehensive review of a number of programs and had to make difficult proposals to terminate and reduce a number of existing programs in order to acquire funds for higher priority programs. The decision to propose the elimination of this program was not made lightly. To access the most current data, please refer to the organizations cited in the source notes for each table of the Statistical Abstract."
Out of the $3.6 trillion the government spends, the Census Bureau thought the relative pennies it spends on collecting and disseminating data about the government itself and the country at large were among the most expendable.
Almost no one wants to cut government spending as much as I do. Ron Paul made a good start. But if we live in a world where our federal government spends one of every four dollars, and regulates virtually every aspect of our lives and businesses, it is a matter of democracy that we have that data. If government ever gets out of the business of trying to engineer the economy and society, I can relax about the Abstract. But that is not the world we live in now.
At the very moment our government is trying to do more than ever, it is informing us less than ever.
When our President is intent on spreading the wealth, it is imperative that we have an idea of how that wealth is actually spread, how much the government already takes, etc. If someone says the rich pay lower tax rates than their secretaries, how will we be able to check that?
I've been worried about this for some time: the government would start either manipulating the data or hiding it altogether. Eliminating the Abstract is not just a matter of crimping the mirth of data hobbyists like me; it is ominous. It is hiding the truth. It is Soviet-like. It is a short step from airbrushing people out of photos. The Abstract has been around for 133 years, or about a century longer than the Department of Education has.
It is not often (I would say never) that you will find me agreeing with Paul Krugman and Ezra Klein. But on this, saving the Abstract, I'm with them. You can also read what Robert Samuelson had to say about it here.
I read their warnings, but did not take them seriously. I thought the Abstract would be saved, when push came to shove. But it is now October 18. The Census Bureau terminated data collection October 1. It has already happened. This is not good.