In office since January, US President Donald Trump has already received two letters from Congress expressing concerns about the integrity and independence of US government statistics. The fear is that the president, who has a reputation for hyperbole, will nudge agencies to tweak job growth numbers or trade statistics to better support his policies.
In one letter, signed by Democratic Senator Patty Murray, the ranking member of the committee overseeing the Labor Department and seven colleagues made clear why they are concerned. “You and your representatives have expressed clear skepticism and distrust of, among other statistics, the monthly unemployment rate and employment reports… the White House press secretary reportedly refused to recite the official unemployment rate when directly asked to do so by a reporter… during your campaign you said the unemployment rate was one of the biggest hoaxes in American modern politics… Last February you even stated, incorrectly, that the unemployment rate is ‘probably 28,29, even as high as 35’.”
To be fair, US government statistics are often tweaked to correct an imbalance or better reflect a new influence in the economy. In recent years, the US Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) has been working to improve its numbers after a debate – that the BEA itself raised – about whether it was accurately capturing economic activity with its measurements.
But some of the changes the Trump administration is reportedly considering go further than tweaks and could affect the data that companies use to determine whether or not to invest in the US, and where.
One ominous suggestion floated has been a possible change to how the US trade deficit is calculated, according to unnamed sources quoted in the Wall Street Journal.
The suggested change “would exclude from US exports any goods first imported into the country, such as cars, and then transferred to a third country like Canada or Mexico unchanged”, according to the WSJ.
Separately, a blog post entitled “Why I’m Concerned About the Independence of U.S. Statistical Agencies” by a former government statistician who retired after 32 years at the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Bureau of Economic Analysis, has also raised concerns that changes to statistical methodologies may be more than just cosmetic.