Business Economist Says Colleagues ‘Must Be Ready to Defend Truth’

President of NABE, quoting George Orwell, leaps to the defense of the statistical agencies and nonpartisan budget scorers.

A Congressional Budget Office hallway in Washington.

Photographer: Melina Mara/Getty Images

These are dark days for government economists. As a candidate, President Donald Trump repeatedly denounced the official unemployment rate as phony. In July, the White House released an attack ad against the Congressional Budget Office, the nonpartisan organization that estimates the cost of spending proposals. Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, said in May, "At some point, you've got to ask yourself, has the day of the CBO come and gone?" 

It’s even worse in some other countries. In Greece, the head of the statistical agency was prosecuted, convicted, and given a suspended sentence after producing reports showing that the country’s budget deficits were worse than many Greeks wanted to believe. And around the world, government economists are vulnerable to death by a thousand budget cuts. “Defunding statistical agencies poses risks to economies and public knowledge,” the Sunlight Foundation stated earlier this year.

Stuart Mackintosh leapt to the defense of government economists in a speech on Sept. 24. Mackintosh is president of the National Association for Business Economics, which is holding its annual meeting in Cleveland. The speech isn’t online, but Mackintosh gave me his copy as delivered, complete with cross-outs and add-ins, and it’s a stirring document.

“We have plenty to be frank and sometimes, embarrassed about,” Mackintosh said early on. He cited the failure of most economists to predict the global financial crisis, and the predictions of many economists that a Trump victory would hurt economic growth. He said “We as economists need to be cautious about the reach of our analysis and the limits of our judgment.”

But, Mackintosh said, “business economists must be ready to defend truth against falsehood.” Decision-makers are entitled to their own opinions but not to their own facts, he said, echoing the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan. “In our defense of fact-based decision-making, we must first assert that data matters, and the unbiased integrity of that data matters.”

Mackintosh specifically defended the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the Census Bureau. He said budget proposals would leave the Census Bureau with hundreds of millions of dollars less than it needs to carry out the decennial census in 2020. Other vital programs that could be at risk, he said, include the Job Opening and Labor Turnover Survey, the American Time Use Survey, and the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries.

“Data is to business economics what flowing rivers are to canoeists,” he said.

Mackintosh is a canoeist himself. He was raised and educated in the United Kingdom, and it showed in his speech, which was salted with references to Michael Gove, the British politician who said, “People in this country have had enough of experts,” and to British writer George Orwell, author of 1984, whose character Winston Smith says, “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”

Mackintosh has a day job as executive director of the Group of Thirty, an international think tank of central bankers, academics, and bankers. But he said he was speaking only for himself.

The NABE president never mentioned Trump by name, but he did tell a chilling story about a White House predecessor, Richard Nixon. As revealed in tape recordings, Nixon was convinced that there was a conspiracy of Jews in the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which had downplayed a drop in unemployment as a statistical quirk.

Nixon tasked aides, including H.R. Haldeman and Fred Malek, to identify the supposed conspirators. Four BLS employees were demoted. Malek has admitted compiling a list of Jews at the BLS. He denied that he was even “peripherally involved” in getting anyone demoted. But a memo (PDF) unearthed by Slate shows that he was very much involved in orchestrating the demotions.

Footnote to history: Malek was picked by Trump in August to become the next chair of the board of trustees of the Smithsonian Institution’s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. 

    Peter Coy
    Bloomberg Businessweek Columnist
    Peter Coy is the economics editor for Bloomberg Businessweek and covers a wide range of economic issues. He also holds the position of senior writer. Coy joined the magazine in December 1989 as telecommunications editor, then became technology editor in October 1992 and held that position until joining the economics staff. He came to BusinessWeek from the Associated Press in New York, where he had served as a business news writer since 1985.
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