Spare the Messenger!

It is a rare thing, indeed, when we are able to see some quick, tangible accomplishment from something that we have written.  Such a moment may have arrived.  Professor Robert W. Bednarzik of the Georgetown School of Public Policy has begun an online petition to save the International Labor Comparisons program of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the scorekeeper of international labor data from a U.S. perspective.  Readers of this page may recall that we scooped the journalistic world when we sounded the tocsin on February 6 with “Kill the Messenger?” 

“Kill the Messenger?” was noticed by Richard A. McCormack of Manufacturing and Technology News, and we are quoted extensively in his article entitled “Obama Puts BLS’s International Labor Comparison Program on Chopping Block.”  We would not be surprised if that piece should become something of a dam-breaker, opening the way for a flood of articles to follow. 

But letting the press tell us and our elected officials what to think is now part of an era that is on its way out.  Neither we nor they need to wait for the journalists.  You don’t even have to believe me, and you don’t have to believe Robert Bednarzik.  Virtually every assertion of fact that I make in the original article is supported by a link to the actual government documents being described.  One astute reader followed the links and noticed that, while I was right to say that the United States had the greatest decline in manufacturing employment among 17 countries in 2008, the correct percentage was 3.4 percent rather than 3.9.  That error has now been corrected.  I was looking at the table for manufacturing hours worked instead of the one for manufacturing employment, which comes right after it.  When we compare the two tables we see that the more-often-cited employment numbers actually understate the problem in the United States.  Both in 2007-2008 and over the longer 2000-2008 period, U.S. hours worked in manufacturing declined at an even greater rate than did employment.

But back to the petition, here’s how it reads:

The International Labor Comparisons Program of the Bureau of Labor Statistics is proposed for elimination in the President's FY-2011 budget. For just $2 million annually and with 50 years of experience, the BLS International Labor Comparisons Program produces timely, high-quality international comparisons of labor force, productivity, hourly compensation, and prices for many industrialized countries.  The program has pioneered in the development of comparative data for emerging economies, notably China and Brazil and with work in progress on India and others.  This program provides the only data available that ensure comparisons are "apples to apples" and not "apples to oranges”; that is, they permit valid comparisons of the U.S. labor market with labor markets abroad and reliable assessments of U.S. manufacturing competitiveness. 

To preserve these widely used and vital comparisons in our increasingly global economy, the undersigned appeal to the Congress to restore funding for the BLS Program of International Labor Comparisons.

As of this writing, all but one of the signers are from academia, but don’t let that put you off.  Professors—even professors of economics—are not always wrong.  To go ahead and sign the petition, you just have to believe that it is generally better to know more than to know less when it comes to important economic information, and you probably should have at least a tiny bit of belief left in the workings of our democracy.

David Martin

February 17, 2010




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