Deteriorating Statistics

Mike Mandel asks what statistics I would like to see improved. Answer: all of them.

Back in the post-war years, some of the smartest economists in the world set up statistical agencies in the leading industrialized nations. If they can’t measure how an economy is doing, policymakers are essentially driving blindfolded. So a lot of time and money and effort was put into getting those measurements right.

Since then, however, a lot has changed. For one thing, globalized economies have become much more dynamic and fluid and fast-moving, which makes them much harder to measure. But at the same time, statistical agencies have become intellectual backwaters, home to underpaid and underfunded technocrats who receive roughly zero in the way of thanks or glory and who are much more likely to be on the receiving end of budget cuts than they are to get the significant increases in funding that they need to keep up with the economy’s complexity.

Nowadays, the only time that governments really put a lot of time and effort into improving their national statistics seems to be during periods when emerging-market countries are running large current-account deficits and need to borrow a lot of money from worried international bond investors. Which is hardly the case at the moment. So I’m not hopeful that anything is going to improve significantly, either in the developed or in the developing world. After all, "I’ll provide funding for higher-quality statistical datasets" is not exactly a major vote-getter in any democracy. More’s the pity.

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