It used to be that the news brought us the monthly ups and downs of the leading economic indicators. They gave us some idea of how the marketplace was doing. They would jump, inch up, hold steady, or fall, until someday they fell through the cracks and were not heard from again. Had the leading indicators been found to be misleading?
Now we get the fickle oscillations of "consumer confidence," an index once-removed from what's really happening. No more percentage points from the retail, wholesale, manufacturing, and other vital sectors of the national economy. Instead we are told how consumers react to these percentage points.
Another figure cropping up in the news is the approval rating of the president, the cause of much wonderment in the recent past. Again, here is a figure telling us how we, the people, perceive the president to be doing in guiding the ship of state, instead of definite log entries about its course.
While I have never been polled about my confidence as a consumer nor how I rate the "performance" of our president, I can imagine that in the event of a telephone call from a pollster, the circumstances of that call cannot help but color my statements.
Suppose I'm at dinner discussing with my family the Social Security shortfall in 2012 - or is it 2025? - and how to counteract it. Suddenly the phone rings and someone wants to know how confident I feel about the economy. My reply is bound to be different than it would be if I'd just surprised my loved ones with news of a hefty raise.
Or suppose I'm on the phone with a dear friend when I hear a call-waiting beep and it turns out to be a pollster wanting me to grade the president's handling of domestic, foreign, and other affairs. My answer is apt to be short and possibly markedly irked.
Quantifiable trends are one thing, but the feelings of an impressionable consumer may well be subject to double-digit swings.
For a better way to get an accurate picture of the state of affairs, why not combine various scientifically derived statistics and form an all-inclusive index that we'd call the National Omni Poll. Something similar to, say, the Dow Jones Index, it would cover the ups and downs of everything on a national level. It would incorporate the consumer price index, housing starts, the recurrence of the words may, might, could, perhaps, possibly, and potentially in Alan Greenspan's statements, the median ERA of pitchers in the Major League (after the baseball season some stats from the NBA, NHL, or NFL), the dew point at the geographic center of the US at 6 a.m. and other diverse statistics, seasonally adjusted if necessary. The result would be an all-encompassing picture of the state of the nation, a sort of USA-at-a-glance.
With this reading of the well-being of the US we would no longer need to listen to the pundits and experts and get confused by widely differing views and "soft" statistics. Television and radio would give us the daily computed Omni Poll with the morning news and we'd know how to feel about things for the rest of the day.
Trouble is, pundits and experts would now pounce on the latest Omni Poll and start interpreting it. Is it truly indicative of the state of things? Has anything been left out? What does it really say? All of which may give rise to a new poll - the Consumers' Confidence in the National Omni Poll Poll.
* Peter H. Dreyer is a Westwood, Mass.-based professional photographer waiting to be polled.