Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Beyond the Statistics

Did the BBC actually react to last week's "Meaningless Statistics" post, in which I accused them of spinning Administration claims about the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act? Did Katty Kay actually leave the comforts of Washington to go into the field (which, in all fairness, she seems to do with encouraging frequency) to see if there was any substance behind those statistics? I know better than to assume that this blog has that sort of impact (and my wife continues to give me arch looks whenever I say anything about the good work Kay has been doing for BBC America); but the report she filed yesterday for the BBC NEWS Web site does have some real numbers about some real jobs. It is hardly enough to substantiate fully those Administration claims, but it is certainly pointing in the right direction.

The bottom line is that Kay's field work took place in Perry County ("about 90 minutes from Nashville"), because that county "is part of a unique experiment where the state is using stimulus money to pay for almost 300 people to work in private businesses." Here are some hard data points:

Armstrong Pies is employing eight stimulus workers. Around the corner, Dimples cafe has two. Next door, a tailoring firm employs one, while Linden's only hotel, the Commodore, has 12 government-paid staff to help it run its restaurant.

The scheme has brought local unemployment down from a staggering 27% to 19% - but these jobs are only guaranteed for one year.

The funds come from stimulus money set aside for welfare and only residents below a certain income level can apply.

Kay's larger claim is that "Dozens of businesses are benefitting;" but she chose to illustrate her point by focusing on a single city block, which is not a bad rhetorical flourish.

Nevertheless, there are two words that should be raising red flags of skepticism. The first is "experiment." As the elaboration makes clear, this experiment will be conducted over a limited period of time. What happens next will probably depend on the sort of data that get collected; but we should not discount the risk that any activities will get put on hold while the "professionals" conduct an analysis of those data. The word "unique" is also a bit disquieting. As my father liked to say, "One is not a statistic." What other activities are taking place by virtue of the use of stimulus money to reduce unemployment? Are they in any way coordinated, even for something as simple as sharing data? Do they know about each other, or is this going to be another classic case where no one is even thinking about connecting any dots? If this is a state-based effort, what is Tennessee doing to touch base with other states that have similar concerns?

Yes, the BBC has progressed beyond the specious reasoning that comes from spinning meaningless statistics; but, as Lao Tzu would have put it, this is but the first step in a thousand-mile journey. Who will take the next steps? Will Kay be there (wherever in the field "there" is) to let us know about those steps; and why is the BBC doing a better job covering unemployment in our country than our "home-grown" news services?

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