The Statistical Abstract of the United States

by Kieran Healy on April 15, 2011

I saw this report go by on the Twitter saying that, in the wake of the latest budget deal, the Census Bureau is planning on eliminating the Statistical Abstract of the United States, pretty much the single most useful informational document the Government produces. The report says,

When readying the FY2011 budget, the Census Bureau tapped teams to do thorough, systematic program reviews looking for efficiencies and cost savings. Priorities for programs were set according to mission criticality, and some cuts were made to the economic statistics program. According to Tom Mesenbourg, deputy director of the Census Bureau, “difficult choices had to be made” in order to reduce expenditures on existing programs and move forward with new initiatives in FY2012. Core input data that the Bureau of Economic Analysis relies on to produce the National Income and Product Account tables, for example, would be retained. New data sets needed to be added to the Census of Government regarding state and local government pensions (e.g., cost of post-retirement employee benefits). In addition, FY2012 requires funding for the planning stages of the 2012 Economic Census; data collection begins in 2013. So what’s left to cut? It was felt that the popular Statistical Abstract of the United States—the “go to” reference for those who don’t know whether a statistic is available, let alone which agency/department is responsible for it—could be sacrificed. Staff will be moving to “Communications,” digitizing the data set. It is hoped that the private sector—commercial publishers—will see the benefit of publishing some version of the title in the future.

Bleah. When it comes to the United States, the print and online versions of the SA are a peerless source of information for all your bullshit remediation needs. What’s the median household income? What does the distribution of family debt liability look like? How many people are in prison? How many flights were late, got diverted, or crashed in the past few years? How many women hold public office? What sort of families get food stamps? Who does and doesn’t have health insurance? What percentage of households own a cat, a dog, a bird, or a horse? (The fish lobby seem to have lost out on that one.)

In his early days as a pundit, Paul Krugman got a fair amount of mileage from columns that consisted mostly of taking some claims about the U.S. trade balance or industrial structure, looking up the relevant table in the Abstract, and calling bullshit on the claim-maker. (Of course, that was in those far-off days when all this were nowt but fields, Krugman was still a Real Economist—i.e., he had yet to win the Nobel Prize in Economics, or say rude things about Republican economic and social policy—and he patrolled the boundaries of his profession against the incursions of pop internationalists.) So, properly used, the SA might even make you famous.

In the meantime, maybe this is all a feint or post-budget posturing by the Census Bureau. I have no idea. But I really do hope the abstract doesn’t go away anytime soon, or become the property of some gobdaw publisher looking to sell me tabulations of data the government has already collected using public money.

Fantasy 11-dimensional chess

by John Quiggin on April 15, 2011

For those who’ve picked Obama (Democrat) in their fantasy 11-dimensional chess league, here’s the winning line that’s opened up, with annotation. Starting position is Budget compromise.

1. … (Reps) Announce Ryan strategy !? given the requirements to cut taxes, raise defence spending and reduce the deficit, it would have been better to temporise, but Serious Commentators approve
2. (Obama) Wait two days for Ryan plan to fall apart under scrutiny 2 … Keep looking Serious and try to erase worst bloopers from Interwebs ?? Overlooks Wayback machine, screenshots
3. Propose plausible plan, with mix of tax increases and expenditure cuts 3 … Keep looking Serious
4. Announce that debt limit vote must be Up or Down 4 … Cave in if 4 … refuse to lift debt limit, forced loss as in Clinton v Gingrich 1995)
5. Hold line on budget except for more cosmetic expenditure cuts 5 … Cave in if 5 … hold to Ryan plan, 6 make election referendum on Medicare vs tax cuts for millionaires wins easily
6. Wins

Of course, that’s the fantasy version. The likelihood that the Obama (Democrat) who spoke the other day will reappear any time soon is pretty small. In the real world, Obama (Republicrat) will almost certainly meet the Reps halfway and then some.

Usually I half-agree with what Julian Sanchez has to say. But not in this case.

In a recent post, I suggested that claims about “desert” are generally misplaced in arguments about copyright—whether they are deployed on behalf of “deserving” small fry artists or against “undeserving” labels. As some commenters pointed out, there’s no obvious reason this argument should be restricted to the domain of copyright—and quite right. I think most areas of political philosophy and policy—theory of just punishment springs to mind as a possible exception—would be better off if we just scrapped the concept of “desert” entirely, and just spoke about what people are entitled to.

Here’s the difference, very roughly, in case this sounds like semantic hairsplitting. To say someone deserves X is to say that X is in some sense an appropriate or fair reward in light of that person’s morally virtuous qualities or conduct. To say that someone is entitled to X is just to say that the person has a just claim to X, without any implied commitment to some deeper claim about their moral merit.

Here’s his thesis, a paragraph or so further on: “I think political and policy discussions should concentrate on what people are entitled to, rather than on necessarily muddy attempts to determine (and embed in law) what people morally deserve.”

The post goes on at some length. Sanchez is at pains to confess that he is making a rather vague argument, not trying to nail anything down. But it seems to me 1) absolutely, completely hopeless; 2) a standing temptation to libertarians and conservatives; 3) worth shooting down hard. [click to continue…]