No Need to Fret Over Statistical Abstract's Demise

When first published in 1878, the Statistical Abstract of the United States must have been something to behold. But then, so were the Postal Service and telegraph in their days.

Prodded by the Obama administration, the Census Bureau has announced the scrapping of the annual statistical publication (close to the hearts of many, it would seem) as a cost-cutting measure. Effective Oct. 1, the bureau is no longer collecting data for the statistical compendium, an official site notice reads.

The Statistical Abstract, which the Census Bureau describes as “the authoritative and comprehensive summary of statistics on the social, political, and economic organization of the United States," includes about 1,000 pages of data. It can tell you things like the number of fire departments active in firefighting in 2008 and how many fires they fought that year.

Robert J. Samuelson, an economics columnist for the Washington Post, delineates the abstract's virtues in an August op-ed. It presents a huge amount of information from government and private sources all in one place, and it provides footnotes to the information sources that allow readers to seek more details if they wish.

As unintentional as it may have been, Samuelson makes the greatest case against the Statistical Abstract's continued publication. Many other technologies, organizations, and resources bring together considerable data in one place. Compare the amount of data contained in the listings of a single Google search, for example, to the amount of data contained in the 1,000 printed pages of the Statistical Abstract. And Google presents its data at a cost that's much less (to the public, at least) than the $2.9 million in taxpayer dollars reportedly required to assemble the abstract each year.

Also, as Samuelson observes, this data is all from somewhere else, just like the data brought to you in a Google search or as links in a social network stream. The abstract is, in official words, a “summary” and nothing more. Today, researchers have many more comprehensive summaries of vast amounts of data at their disposal.

What’s behind all this fear that the retirement of a summary of statistical data with a 19th century origin will somehow make us less informed? In an age of government bloat, shouldn't we be embracing this as the cost-saving measure it's intended to be? Well, like the disappearance of news printed in ink on dead trees, I suspect our fear has something to do with our difficulty in separating the tools from the functions they perform.

Possibly as early as the third century BC, a Jewish sect known as the Essenes is believed to have used a group of caves on the shore of the Dead Sea to store a library of 972 texts, including biblical and other documents, on parchment and papyrus scrolls. Today the information would probably fit on your hard drive. Would paper stored in caves be better?

Sure, the abstract contains a lot of neat data all conveniently collected in one place, but it’s all available elsewhere, too -- or could soon be, so long as Washington continues to work toward a goal of transparency. It’s much more important for the analytics community to hold our leaders’ feet to the fire so that vital data is always available in easily accessible form than for us to preserve an archaic tool used to present that data. What do you think?

Point / Counterpoint, Community Editor

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Re: The Value of Tradition
  • 12/14/2011 11:29:45 PM

Hi Steve,

Thanks for your comments and welcome to the community! We do quite a bit of sparring around here on these issues but all friendly, of course. I respect the opinions expressed here but would like to point out that, in many cases, the same, or similar data can be gathered from the original sources, in many cases also government agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture simply by clicking through the links already provided on the abstract's own online spreadsheets. This is not data collected by big ruthless corporations, agenda driven political action groups etc. but data collected by one government agency which is then taken by another government agency and reduced into tables. If our argument is that the extraction of this data and translation into comparable form from its original source, which is also the government, is costly on a par with the expense of creating the abstract, this is something that is debatable in my mind. I believe a detailed cost analysis would be needed to prove the point.

Re: The Value of Tradition
  • 12/12/2011 10:38:06 PM


Beth, thanks for the welcome. I am not sure what it means to "implicitly trust the data." I trust it enough to utilize it in testing early hypotheses in order to determine whether to delve further into a particular issue. Resources found on Google may not come with such a high degree of initial credibility.

Of course, such reliance on other sources could come with time and experience. Apparently, there are many who have not had good experiences with other sources, yet. Hence, the opposition to the demise of the Statistical Abstract.

Some might even wonder where to start looking for sources of data that represent the entire nation, rather than whatever segment of society is funding the database. It may be more than urban myth that private sector data is often gathered or disseminated in support of a cause. Federal data, on the other hand, provides an a priori source of rebuttable information.

Someone studying societal trends could get a "snapshot" of the nation.

Likewise, a company considering entering a new market may study the governmental data for clues on how to approach the new territory. They would not have to rely solely on data from competitors, industry organizations, or other sources. And, they would have a basis for judging a source's credibility.

If they make the decision to proceed, they will eventually gather their own data, from their own experience with their own customers which will prompt them to pursue their initial activities, refine their approach, or reconsider the decision to participate in that market.

While the Federal data does not need to be presented as a printed book, it does need to be (A) readily accessible so that it is available to anyone - from a concerned citizen or the smallest business to the most lucrative venture - and (B) in a form that will not change over time so historical studies will remain feasible.

The Statistical Abstract is a useful place to start - whether in print, HTML, Excel, or a SAS database. In print, scattered across the nation in private and public libraries, it meets the criteria of both accessibility and permanence.


Re: The Value of Tradition
  • 12/12/2011 10:21:58 PM

Steven, welcome to the community and thanks for sharing your first-hand experience using the Abstract. I would imagine, too, that you implicitly trust the data presented in the Abstract. I'm guessing you'd not likely be able to say the same of some of the types of data served up via Google or other sources? 

Re: The Value of Tradition
  • 12/12/2011 6:46:10 PM

Thanks for the welcome, Louis.

The Statistical Abstract is something that has been the base for a lot of work, a place to begin. Its presence has been something to depend upon when starting a new project. I don't need to refer to it everyday, but I am glad it is there when I need it. I suppose I could use Google, but it seems that they present me with a lot of websites that are not relevant - along with a few that may be useful.

Not having the Statistical Abstract is likely to result in much greater ineffeciencies which, in turn, will result in costs to taxpayers who would have used it. I haven't sat down to compute the relative costs, but would not be surprised if the privatized costs will exceed the cost-savings to the government. In other words, it is a cost to the taxpayers; a hidden tax.

Re: The Value of Tradition
  • 12/12/2011 6:18:21 PM

Steven, I agree whole heartily and thank you for voicing your opinion and welcome ! 

Looking forward to reading more opinions and insights from you.

Re: The Value of Tradition
  • 12/12/2011 5:33:09 PM

I'm new here, but not new to the use of satistics.  Government statistics tend to be rather broadbased, but fairly neutral - with less of an "agenda" to slant them.  Could the Statistical Abstract be replaced by private data sources or by a compilation like Google?  Sure.  Not everything has to be done by government, just because government has always done them.  But, there is something a bit "overboard" in saying "the abstract contains a lot of neat data all conveniently collected in one place, but it’s all available elsewhere, too -- or could soon be."  Apparently, not.  If so, then there would not be the reaction.  If users could just go on using data from their new sources, they wouldn't care.  Everyone is too busy to fight over things that do not matter.  This matters.  Keeping the Statistical Abstract matters. 

The Value of Tradition
  • 12/1/2011 9:35:52 PM

Shawn,  You present a strong argument in favor of moving on from tradition, the resources we have now at our disposal are mind boggling, however, I am going to go against reason here and argue the publishing of this value resource continue. 

In a government and society filled with bloat, what is 2.9M with a deficit in the trillions ?   This falls under the category of things we should in my opinion be spending on, in addition to basic infrastructure improvements, education, youth programs...etc. 

I signed the petition to keep the Abstract alive ( and I am guessing you did too ) - because in my opinion it is the right thing to do.

Re: One place, summary: That's the point
  • 12/1/2011 12:02:02 PM

A reply to Shawn's comment: "I think that a private non-profit or for-profit entity could probably carry on in the government's place producing the abstract annually at potentially considerable cost savings and increased efficiency."

I think this really is the heart of the debate, and it gets at a larger debate about what kind of society we want to live in.  (No really, it does.)  The printed version of Stat Abstract sells for 40 bucks.  The online version is free.  I think we all understand that it costs a heck of a lot more than that to produce it, or else its elimination wouldn't be at issue.  Any private entity which wanted to take up the monumental task of replacing the Statistical Abstract would need to charge substantially more to make the effort sustainable, at a price that would place the data outside the reach of most of the people who use the current, taxpayer-supported version.

So the question boils down to whether we think it's worth $3 million a year to place this information in the hands of everyone, or only the select few who could afford the much higher price tag of a privately published replacement?  In other words, does society have a role in paying for a basic set of statistical data to make sure it's available to everyone, whether it be for your high school kid's homework or a solo practitioner or somebody who is launching the next startup out of his or her garage? 

I'll leave it to others to decide whether a "no" answer to that question is more of a libertarian perspective or an elitist one, but I think we would be a sadder, more backward-looking society if we decided that public investments like this didn't pay us back many times over.

Re: One place, summary: That's the point
  • 12/1/2011 11:45:12 AM

I think Mathematiker's point about bringing the data together in one place is right on target, but I also want to address the assumption that all this data will still be findable out there in some other format from some other provider if the Stat Abstract is no longer here to bring it all together.

The Preface to Stat Abstract says that both government and private sources contribute to its mix of data. I checked on what that would mean if we lost the publication, and found out that about 100 of those private sources, which contribute to 179 tables in the book, require copyright permission, meaning that almost 13 percent of the tables in the book are copyrighted. All but a few of those tables are approved for the online and CD-ROM versions.

This large chunk of copyrighted data will no longer be publicly accessible by any means, short of separately negotiated agreements with those approximately 100 private sources (have fun).  So Statistical Abstract is literally irreplaceable, because no one outside the Census Bureau's Statistical Compendia Branch is capable of collecting it all without re-establishing all those copyright arrangements -- that is, without doing what the Statistical Compendia Branch already does, and does so much better, more efficiently, and more economically than anyone else could. 

Like anyone else who has looked at the numbers, I am horrified by the state of our public finances and the threats they pose to our future, but I don't think that the places where government provides business and the taxpaying public with the most fantastic returns on investment are the places you look to first for cuts. I think this case serves as a useful reminder that the opposite of good government isn't less government; it's bad government.

Re: One place, summary: That's the point
  • 12/1/2011 11:44:41 AM

Hi Mathematiker,

Thanks so much for taking the time to contribute to the conversation and, as Beth suggested, don't ever be afraid to voice your opinions. That's what the boards are for and we all really appreciate the feedback. I guess my point isn't so much that the abstract can't serve a purpose. I suspect it probably could, especially in its current digital form. As I suggested to John, in a comment on his Point post, I think that a private non-profit or for-profit entity could probably carry on in the government's place producing the abstract annually at potentially considerable cost savings and increased efficiency. The question is whether something like the Abstract must exist thus justifying public expenditures to keep it up and running. I would argue that the answer to this question is that the Abstract is expendable for all the reasons I have mentioned. I'm glad you mentioned newspapers. As a veteran of the newspaper industry for almost two decades and at several different papers, I suppose I hold a somewhat different view than those who have faithfully read (and even some who have worked at) newspapers and tend to romanticize their inherent value. While it is true that freedom of the press is a cornerstone of our democracy, it must be remembered that this does not necessarily imply only newspapers as they exist today. In fact, the current "objective journalism" model granting newspapers their authoritative role has been a very successful sort of mass marketing campaign which has thrived in the industry for over a century increasing readership and advertising revenue by broadening customer base. Arguably first employed at the liberal New York Times under pioneering publisher Adolph Ochs and then his descendents, it eventually spread to the conservative Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune and to the liberal Washington Post. But as anyone who has ever worked at a newspaper can tell you, it is just that: a marketing campaign. Coverage of issues still varies from paper to paper based on the political affiliation, business and social connections of its publisher, editors etc. and the approach has come at a terrible cost, fewer operating newspapers thanks, not simply to radio, television and the Internet, but to lack of differentiation and overall blandness of content. Again, in my view, a single source of data is not necessarily a virtue. It is simply easier to digest. The explosion of data on the Internet and from other sources makes both the Abstract and newspapers obsolete in their current form and both will need to reinvent themselves in order to be relevant to future generations.  

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