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Monday, December 20, 2004

The Government's Numbers Matter - But Which Ones?

How much are Americans spending this year? The final numbers for 2004 aren't yet in, of course, but data for previous years is available from the federal government. In fact, several numbers for how much Americans spent last year are available in Washington!

The Bureau of Labor Statistics, for example, says we spent $4.7 trillion in 2003. That's more than $40,000 each for 115 million households. If you are a business (or a national economy!) that depends in great part upon retail sales, that's a pretty handy number to have around, right?

Well, if the Labor Department number doesn't suit you, the U.S. Department of Commerce has a different number for personal consumption. Commerce claims the right figure for 2003 is $7.76 trillion, or three trillion dollars more.

That's not close enough, not even for government work.

Unfortunately, the Labor vs Commerce data conflict is just one of many facing those who depend upon the government for data upon which to base millions of crucial decisions about the nation's economy, its social policy and physical health, where to allocate scarce resources such as heating oil for the winter and much else.

Journalists also must often depend upon government data in order to understand what's going on in the stock market, housing sales, flu shot distributions and a lot of other things at the top of the nation's news agenda. With Computer-Assisted Research and Reporting (CARR) becoming a more common skill in the media, a growing legion of journalists applying statistical analyses to public policy databases find such conflict government data sources troubling.

Dr. Kirk Johnson of The Heritage Foundation's Center for Data Analysis is a former Census Bureau analyst who knows all about such problems with government data because he works with it every day. (Full Disclosure: Johnson is a highly valued colleague of mine on the teaching staff of the CARR Boot Camps hosted by the foundation's Center for Media and Public Policy at the National Press Club). He's written an excellent piece on this issue that is now posted on the Fox News web site. You can read it here.