The Public Interest

Data banks and dossiers

Carl Kaysen

Spring 1967

Both the intellectual development of economics and its practical success have depended greatly on the large body of statistical information, covering the whole range of economic activity, that is publicly available in modern, democratic states. Much of this material is the by-product of regulatory, administrative, and revenue-raising activities of government, and its public availability reflects the democratic ethos. In the United States there is also a central core of demographic, economic, and social information that is collected, organized, and published by the Census Bureau in response to both governmental and public demands for information, rather than simply as the reflex of other governmental activities. Over time, and especially in the last three or four decades, there has been a continuing improvement in the coverage, consistency, and quality of these data. Such improvements have in great part resulted from the continuing efforts of social scientists and statisticians both within and outside the government. Without these improvements in the stock of basic quantitative information, our recent success in the application of sophisticated economic analyses to problems of public policy would have been impossible. Thus, the formation last year of a consulting committee composed largely of economists to report to the Director of the Budget– himself an economist of distinction– on “Storage of and Access to Federal Statistical Data” was simply another natural step in a continuing process. The participants were moved by professional concern for the quality and usability of the enormous body of government data to take on what they though to be a necessary, important, and totally unglamorous task. They certainly did not expect it to be controversial.

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