LOS ANGELES _ I really hate to quibble with Vice President Al
Gore's report on reinventing government. It's a thoughtful
attempt to untangle the federal monstrosity and I suspect many of
the recommendations will be enacted.
Too bad, though, that while Gore and Co. were busy
reinventing, more attention wasn't paid to a little-discussed,
low-budgeted area of the government that has an extraordinary
influence on our lives:
The preparation of economic statistics.
OK, so we're not talking Heidi Fleiss material _ just a bunch
of dull numbers that the government churns out almost every day
of the week. Stuff goes up and stuff goes down, and who can make
sense of what it means anyway?
Those dull numbers, however, are the one benchmark we have to
gauge how the economy is doing. From that, your financial life
gets shaped. How much interest you pay on a new house, what your
stocks are trading at, whether your company is going to hire or
fire _ they're all determined, to one degree or another, from
Trouble is, government statistics are notoriously unreliable.
George Bush found that out the hard way when revisions were
recently made in the gross domestic product _ the primary
measurement of how well the economy is doing.
The revisions included the last few months of 1992, a critical
point in the election year. The Commerce Department now says that
the GDP grew at a rate of 5.7 percent in the fourth quarter, a
full percentage point higher than what had been reported. That's
an amazingly big change, especially considering the thing already
had been revised three times.
Third quarter GDP was revised to 3.4 percent from an initial
estimate of 2.7 percent on Oct. 27 (and compared with earlier
private forecasts of 1.5 percent).
Who knows whether any of this would have changed the election.
Voters were in a gloomy mood last fall and it would have taken a
lot more than a few positive numbers to change anybody's mind.
Besides, much of the fourth quarter spending took place after
Bill Clinton was elected _ and had more to do with the
post-election jump in consumer confidence than with Bush's
Still, government numbers do set a tone _ from those first
cryptic reports by the wires to the more probing analyses by the
newspapers to the oversimplified snippets by the network news
At the end of the day, we're left with a neat and tidy
conclusion, no matter how misleading it might prove to be. …