Introducing Political Arithmetick

Sir William Petty, by Isaac Fuller, oil on canvas, circa 1651, License: http://bit.ly/2iAdU9i

We live and make decisions in a world of easy access to data. While much attention is devoted to how we draw inferences from data, relatively little is given to how public data are created, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and how they can be improved. Welcome to my new blog, which is devoted to understanding the statistics that guide public policy.

I intend to use this blog to explore and explain the methodologies, principles, and practices used by statistical agencies to generate official statistics. Sometimes we’ll be talking about broad principles, such as how statistical agencies are organized and how international organizations work to standardize and harmonize statistics across countries. Other times I expect to get into the weeds to explain some of the peculiarities of national accounts concepts or of quality adjustment.

I’d also like to devote some of my blog posts to looking at individual data series or surveys. I’m interested in discovering new data and exploring the scope and variety of data that are available. Each data product is produced with a different set of goals and constraints, and I’d like to learn more about these individual data products.

I also plan to write about some of the latest research on topics like evaluating official statistics, improving measurements, and developing new statistics. Research is the key to correcting problems with existing statistics and developing new statistics to meet new policy needs. I’d like to use this blog to support and publicize those research efforts.

I’m writing this blog as an American and will undoubtedly focus mostly on U.S. statistics, but I’m also aware that understanding statistics has an important international dimension to it. Although I won’t be able to comment constructively on all international data, I’d like to talk about important statistical work that’s happening at the international organizations and national statistical institutes.

The title I’ve given to this blog, Political Arithmetick, is a reference to the work of the 17th-century economist Sir William Petty, who was one of the earliest writers to compile statistical (primarily administrative) data to draw inferences about the broader economy. The term “political arithmetic” was widely used in the 17th and 18th centuries to describe compilations of data until it was eventually displaced by “statistics.”

For those who don’t know me, I’m an economist (PhD from University of Chicago). I’ve recently retired from a 32-year career in the U.S. statistical system—13 years with BLS, where I was a researcher and primarily worked on the CPI, and my last 19 years with BEA, where I oversaw the national income and product accounts. I’ve spent my career working to compile and improve economic statistics, and look forward to using this blog as a forum for better understanding of the statistics.

One of goals in having a blog is to have a forum where I can engage with readers and discuss issues in statistics. However, I’ve seen the “Comments” section of too many blogs unfortunately devolve into angry, pointless sniping about politics or ideology. There’s no reason that the political left and right shouldn’t be able to have a civil discussion of statistical methodology. I plan to allow for comments, but intend to moderate them with a heavy hand in order to keep them on topic. The discussions will be strictly limited to statistics, and the only policy discussions allowed will be discussions of statistical policies.

I’ll appreciate receiving your suggestions of topics for future posts. You can post them in comments or shoot me an email with your suggestions. Also, I know that I will make some factual errors, and I’d appreciate having them corrected, again either via comments or emails.

Let’s talk about data!

6 Comments

  1. Tom G

    Hello Brent, coming from MR (Marginal Revolution), a blog on statistics seems great — especially as we move towards more Big Data and analysis.

    I like reading blogs & leaving comments, and economics.

    I’m wondering how you’ll do, so I’ll be among those watching, and hoping to appreciate good stats work; possibly with a bit of Bayesian probabilities when discussing the future.

    Reply
  2. zhoulight

    Congratulations on trying to help shed some light on an idea that always seems simple to the average person but is exptremely complex in real life.

    I also come to you re MR.

    Good luck.

    Reply
  3. Brian W Sloboda

    Hi Brent this is a good idea to have this blog. I read a few blog pieces already. Insightful. I like the name too. 🙂 Also a blog like this would keep us abreast what is going on because a Ferris Bueller said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” The same in statistics. If you don’t stop and look around, there will be a surprise that is not expected.

    Reply
  4. Fr.

    Like the other commenters, I am thrilled to have found a blog dedicated to the topic of national/official statistics and statistical agencies. Keep up the good work!

    From Paris, France

    Reply
    • Brent Moulton

      Actually, one of the reasons I started this blog was because I didn’t see other blogs focusing on official statistics (other than the “official” blogs that appear on some of the agency websites). I may put together a blogroll of some of the statistics/economics blogs that sometimes talk about official statistics, but I’d also appreciate getting suggestions from our readers.

      Reply

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