Absurd and Frightening

I always go by official statistics, because they are very carefully compounded and, even if they are false, we have no others.

~ Jaroslav Hasek

Government data. You just have to love government data. Because there is nothing so delightfully absurd.

Or, for that matter, nothing quite so frightening either.

I’ve spent the last several years working with statistics from various tentacles of the US government — the Department of Agriculture, the Energy Information Agency, the Interior Department, the hard-charging, number-crunching sojers of the Defense Department. While I only covered agricultural commodities for 18 months or so, I spent more time than I wanted to in the hermetically sealed USDA lockup handling market-sensitive crop production and export "estimates" for a couple of hours while a breathless world — okay, maybe only a small movie theater full of sweaty grain and cattle traders in Chicago, Minneapolis and Kansas City, or a minivan full of frozen concentrated orange juice traders in New York — waited.

Counting my Georgetown master’s degree — a degree of questionable professional use, but that’s another story for another time — I’ve logged close to a decade of pondering the meaning of US, EU and various "UN system agency" data. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund publish a lot of information, much of it collected from governments. If you put all that data end to end, it might just amount to something.

Today, when I "handle" government data at all, it is usually second hand, and then only to check to make sure the reporter — or the computer macro — handled and formatted it properly. Someday, I intend to work at a job that does not require handling regularly scheduled statistics of any kind by an international, federal, state or local government agency.

It’s funny, because given all that governments do — waste money, wage war, imprison and kill people — collecting and publishing data is pretty inoffensive. It can even be useful, especially in industries (such as oil and natural gas) where everybody groans about the crummy quality of published data (such as natural gas storage figures) and think something ought to be done to ensure the data is more reliable and an accurate reflection of, say, what might actually be stored in the ground.

On the other hand, no one actually wants to step up first and actually reveal any data themselves. There’s a lot of finger pointing — Dominion points at El Paso, which points at Sempra, and they all say, "Make him report first." And then government becomes a handy regulatory tool that each company can use to make everyone do something they would all like to see done but not actually have to participate in themselves.

I’m fairly certain there’s pretty good private energy industry data (not the questionable stuff the American Gas Association reported weekly up until a few years ago) that’s kept fairly close and only given to customers willing to pay top dollar and keep their yaps shut about it. In agriculture, Sparks is one outfit a lot of people trust more than USDA. It just so happens, as I recall, that Sparks doesn’t allow reporters — not even farm commodity weenies — to get past the lobby and actually attend any of their conferences.

What, after all, is the point of collecting, collating and analyzing decent and accurate data if all you’re going to do is give it away to just anybody?

What I always found most amusing about government data is the assumption of precision. The USDA wouldn’t simply say "roughly 1 million" bushels of corn were exported during the previous week. The figure was actually pinpointed to the bushel — 1,256,985 bushels exported to foreign destinations during the previous week. Did anyone actually count those bushels? I mean, besides the individual exporters counting their own exports? Does anyone really know how many orange trees are growing in Brazil at any one time? And do I really know if there 1.9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas stuffed into salt caverns across the "Producing Region?" Does anyone? Even the companies reporting the information?

It’s part of that wonderful exercise that started in Prussia more than 200 years ago, when a king wanted to be able to look at a map of forest and "know" how many acre-feet of wood for his navy grew there.

Over the years, I have gotten myself on a number of government mailing lists, some I never bothered to turn off when the need to get that e-mail stopped. A couple of years ago, I was the defense correspondent for the Saudi Press Agency here in Washington (a much less impressive job than you imagine, though it had the perk of occasionally being dropped off at the Pentagon in an automobile with Saudi diplomatic license plates as I headed to press conferences with the brilliant comedy tag-team of Rumsfeld and Meyers), and I got myself subscribed to the Pentagon’s press release list-serve.

Initially, it was simply contract and promotion announcements. And then Bush Jong Il up and invaded Iraq. So, for the last few months, most of what has passed through my inbox have been the names of the dead. Two or three or more a day. It’s pretty depressing reading.

But then this really amusing press release dinged into my inbox — "Iraq Reconstruction Passes 1,000 Project Milestone."

It seems not only have we been bombing the bejeezus out of Iraq. It seems we’ve also been building stuff too. Busy little beavers, the US military, and a whole month ahead of schedule, apparently. "The reconstruction team has delivered 1,051 construction starts to-date," the release said.

"We’re thrilled to have achieved this goal in spite of insurgent activity," Iraq Project and Contracting Office Director Charles Hess chirped (I’m guessing he chirped). "At the same time, while it is an important mark, it’s just a mark on the wall. There are going to be many more. As of today, we have 1,051 projects that have actually started construction, or ‘turned dirt.’ Our new goal is 1,200 by the end of the year."

I’m sure you want a breakdown, and the folks at the Defense Department were kind enough to provide an outline of "Reconstruction Projects Underway as of Dec. 2, 2004": 363 schools, 41 public health clinics, 14 hospitals, 58 railroad stations, 88 border posts, 6 port of entry, 20 fire stations, 17 police stations, 16 military bases, 67 water projects, 58 electricity projects, 19 oil projects, 24 sewer projects, 66 road-related projects, and 194 other kinds of projects. (Other?)

(It’s nice to see those military bases counting as "reconstruction." How Iraqis would live without military bases is beyond me…)

"While the number is important, it is the impact of those projects that is most important," said Brigadier General Thomas Bostick, commander of the Gulf Region Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "The Iraqi people are seeing progress."

I will skip being angry about this immoral and idiotic war. Others at this web site have done that job better than I and will continue to do so. But a couple of points.

First, I suppose this is what Fox and other conservative news outlets call "good news" and a further example of our inherent nobility and goodness as people. We came not to conquer, but to help, we say, bringing the gift of "democracy" and "freedom" to a people who know nothing of either. And proof of that goodness is what we are doing for these people.

I am guessing, though I do not know for a fact, that the Red Army built lots of schools, playgrounds, clinics, and whatnot, during its nearly 10-year occupation of Afghanistan, and I’m guessing that when that war made the Soviet evening news, especially in the early days, there was much emphasis on that "good news" and how grateful the Afghans were to have the Red Army save them from the bad guys.

And I am guessing, and I think I’m on firmer ground with this, that many of the same people who dismissed Soviet reconstruction and assistance figures as propaganda and lies would hail these numbers as accurate, truthful and meaningful, examples of our selflessness and generosity.

Second, these figures, and the way they are presented, have a faintly authoritarian feel to them, like the background noise of "victories on the Malabar front," "increased output of pig iron" and the "higher chocolate ration" that filled the movie version of 1984. These are about norms and targets and exceeding them. What on earth does it mean to start work on 194 "other" projects anyway? This is like Radio Moscow from the bad old days. These numbers feel vaguely like Vietnamese coffee and rice production statistics, which are fine to fall asleep to (trust me, I’ve done so a few times while the Voice of Vietnam spoke gently from the short wave radio) but coming from the official voice of the government, probably don’t mean much. They fall to the ground, weightless, factless, substanceless. Not only do they not feel real, they feel like they don’t really matter.

The truth is, "the Iraqi people are seeing progress" is not about Iraqis, but about the party faithful here, about whether they will continue to be doubleplusgoodthinkers and doubleplusgood duckspeakers of the party line. And that’s all.

At least wheat export figures, or Brazil orange crop estimates, or natural gas storage data (and even, for that matter, Vietnamese coffee production figures), have some kind of higher purpose before their cyclotron half-lives end and they float out into the universe of expired and pointless numbers, because commodity traders and brokers at least use that information to help stake out positions in the hope of making money.

But these Iraqi reconstruction statistics don’t seek to inform. No one can profit, either morally or financially, from these numbers. They are noise. They are dust. They don’t seek to do anything but cover and obscure, to choke and blind, like ash from a far away — or maybe not so distant — forest fire.

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.