Imagine building a new home with a flimsy frame, then subjecting it to the rigors of winter. As you might expect, the house would not stand up very well. That is what making an argument without credible facts is like. Governments generally try to spin the facts in their favor, but the new Trump administration has shown a propensity to discard facts all together. The first week in, this has resulted in mostly silly arguments over the size of the inauguration crowd. However, if government agencies such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) are politicized, important scientific and economic research can be compromised.
Most of us do not deal with economic statistics, or even think about calculating those figures. I’ll start with another example. Imagine being a baseball scout. Well, most of us have never come close to employment in baseball either, but at least have pulled a George Costanza and pretended we were. Lets consider the following scenario:
You are scouting a minor league prospect for a possible promotion to the majors. The player’s batting average is a mediocre .250, but since you get a bonus for scouting a player that makes it to the majors, you decide to report the player hits a stellar .350. Are you performing the service asked by your employer? Will your employer benefit from this falsified data. Is taking the money and running a good career move? Sound unrealistic? This is exactly what happened in the mortgage industry during the bubble years as substandard loans where classified as prime in quality.
Now consider this, you are employed by MLB to maintain and archive statistics. Your boss, who is a Yankees fan, orders you to lower David Ortiz’s career home run total from 541 to 200. Now imagine five years from now, when Ortiz is eligible for the hall of fame, your boss loudly proclaims via his Twitter account and media that Ortiz should not be considered for induction as his home run total of 200 does not merit it. The fan reaction would be, regardless of whether they think Ortiz belongs in the hall or not, justified outrage. As Bill Veeck once jokingly said, the baseball record book is cast in bronze, carved in marble and encased in cement. And, exaggeration aside, there is a reason for that.
It’s simply a matter of integrity of the game. When you want to find out what Ted Williams career on base percentage was, then see the staggering figure of .482, you want assurance that is a legitimate stat and not just something a Red Sox fan entered to puff up Williams reputation. You can argue who was better, Williams or DiMaggio, but you can’t argue Williams did not reach base 48% of the time. If the record book was not reliable, you really couldn’t have the who was better argument at all.
Now I want to ask is this, why should we place a higher standard on the baseball record book than government research? Nobody (except the players) would be harmed if baseball records were tampered with. That is not the case with government work. Economic policy is difficult enough with reliable data, almost impossible with tampered data. Considering suicides increase with unemployment, faulty policy due to rigged data would put lives at risk. It is imperative that the BLS is not politicized. The same holds true for government climate studies. If policy is not informed by reliable data, you can rest assured there will be a body count associated with that.
How can you tell the data is reliable? Replication of results is a good metric. The famous hockey stick graph indicating a climb in global temperatures over the past century has been replicated by independent sources. The same is true with the government inflation rate which has matched MIT’s Billion Price Index. One data set that was not replicated? Andrew Wakefield’s claim that vaccines cause autism. As it turned out, every one of Wakefield’s child subjects had their medical records falsified. The result? As the public received false data, vaccination rates fell in the U.K. and U.S., causing needless outbreaks of preventable diseases.
If we are going to treat politics as sport, the least we can do is demand the same honesty in government record keeping. The public will not be able to argue the pros or cons of policy without reliable data to go by. If we do not maintain the validity of government data, besides endangering lives, we endanger the integrity of our democracy.