Endangered statistics

Hour after hour the numbers stream out of Washington with near monotony - reams of statistical data describing such matters as employment and unemployment patterns, the rise and fall of consumer prices, and the state of the nation's output of goods and services. The question is, can the numbers be believed?

That they are crucial to the American industrial and political process is beyond dispute. The government uses such measurements to determine whether or not the nation is in a recession or period of growth. It employs the numbers to determine federal payments such as social security, welfare, and unemployment compensation. Businessmen use the data to plan for the future, or conduct current marketing programs. Thus it is absolutely imperative that the US, which has perhaps one of the finest government statistical collection programs among major industrial nations, not only maintain such data processes at existing levels of performance but constantly seek to upgrade and improve them.

For these reasons Congress and the administration should give serious attention to a new study just released by the congressional Joint Economic Committee. The study argues that current and projected budget cuts threaten ''calamity for the federal statistical service.''

The Reagan administration argues that its budget cuts will not have any critical effect on the accuracy or collection of federal statistics. It is also suggested that the congressional report may itself be suspect since it was prepared by a former chief economist in the Commerce Department under President Carter.

Congress should make its own inquiry to assure itself that the government's data collection program is not injured by budget cuts. In saying this we are not implying that there should not be appropriate simplifying and reform within the statistical service program. Obviously, the bureaucratic process invites a sort of unending growth in numbers - prompting more and more data - from agencies proving this or that proposition but usually in effect defining their own importance and need to escape from the budget cutters' ax.

What is at stake, however, is ensuring the integrity of the Washington numbers game. The vital economic measurements, such as those indexes that identify the nation's gross national product, must not be compromised or rendered less than absolutely accurate.

A final point seems in order. Cutbacks are also slowing the work of the US Census Bureau and leading to the scrubbing of a new mid-decade census in 1985 that has already been mandated by Congress. Is that really wise? Isn't it a rule of sound corporate management that the more a businessman knows about his shop - from inventories to personnel - the better run the enterprise will be? Would that not also apply to the economics of a nation? The surprising element is that such a basic principle of management could be overlooked by an administration that is itself management oriented.

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