A Better Economy & Honest Government in One Revised Stat

December 12, 2012

At the very end of November, weeks after the election, the Associated Press reported that the U.S. economy “grew at a 2.7 percent annual rate from July through September, much faster than first thought.”  That sort of thing happened several times this year. In one case, a revised report showed that many more jobs had been created than initially reported. Aside from the nice economic news, these changes represent an astonishing (and common) sign of honest professionalism in our government.

Take a step back and think of what would have happened in many places around the world. The US was in the middle of a close and contentious battle for the presidency, which many people believed hinged on the relative health of our economy.  Each month, new growth and employment statistics would be released to breathless political analysis and front page headlines. In other words, most experts believed that the most powerful job in the world would be determined by these numbers.

And yet, the government agencies that issued them regularly produced reports that were less favorable than they could have been to the candidate who runs the government. Instead of nudging the numbers up to help the political chances of their boss’s boss’s boss’s boss, the professionals at the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and similar agencies made what turned out to be conservative underestimates of the President’s performance on the economy. Imagine if you were asked to regularly report to the board of directors of your company and had the unpressured freedom to undersell your boss’s results. Not that the BLS chose to underestimate employment, but the fact that they had to revised upwards several times suggests they certainly felt no pressure to produce the most optimistic results possible.

People who are cynical enough to believe everything is political, or the fix is for those in power, should consider this story.  A group of mid-level government employees had complete freedom to use their best professional judgment to assess the economic situation, regardless of the political impact of their reports. The Civil Service System and ethical behavior from their own cubicles to the Oval Office kept things fair. And that has been true through Democratic and Republican administrations.  We take this level of non-political government professionalism for granted, but it is a fact about which Americans should be proud.

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