GDP and the Decline of National Statistics

Zubin has a good roundup of reactions to the latest GDP numbers, which basically amount to a lot of economists caught wrong-footed and desperately trying to explain why a 3.3% growth rate isn’t anything like as healthy as one might imagine.

Teh Blogs, too, are sounding the same note: "it’s a big flashy number, but it probably doesn’t mean all that much," says the Economist, although others are more upbeat.

Barry Ritholtz has a good question, noting that all of the government expenditure figures were revised upwards:

If you are wondering why the government does not know what it is actually spending in near real time, welcome to the club.

The really big-picture lesson from this GDP report, however, is that government statistics in general, and GDP statistics in particular, are continuing their long and steady decline in terms of accuracy and usefulness.

There are a lot of factors behind this fact. Just some: the fragmentation of the economy, with a large rise in the number of small companies and self-employed individuals; the globalization of the economy, with its attendant blurring of the idea of what counts as "domestic production"; the fact that first-rank economists simply don’t become statisticians any more; and a general fiscal neglect of the statisticians that the government does have.

I’m pessimistic about the prospects for this trend being turned around any time soon: it’s hard to imagine a less sexy rallying cry than "we need to work on the accuracy of our national statistics". But if anybody can do it, maybe Jason Furman can. Vote Obama! You might not like his policies, but at least you’ll be able to measure their effect!

This entry was posted in statistics. Bookmark the permalink.