disinvesting in public data is bad economics

The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed an appropriations bill that cuts major U.S. Census Bureau data programs.  Public data is crucial public infrastructure for informed democracy and a vibrant economy in the twenty-first century.  Even assuming that budget cuts are good policy in the current macroeconomic circumstances, cutting public investment in data is a bad budgetary choice.

The proposed data cuts would eliminate the U.S. Economic Census.  The first U.S. Economic Census took place in 1810.  That census has continued since then on intervals of ten years or less.  In 1998, a Census Bureau historian wrote:

Over the past 187 years, the information in the economic censuses has increased in direct proportion to the growing complexity of the nation’s economy. At one time, this meant continually escalating demands on respondents; more recently, several efforts have eased their burden: reporting by mail, redesigned questionnaires, and increased use of administrative records. Nevertheless, data users in the administration, in Congress, and in the private sector often have pressed for even more statistics and detail. The advent of electronic data processing made filling users’ requests potentially easier, but budgetary constraints just as often forced compromise—cutbacks in detail here, entire programs canceled there. Yet, the published reports from the economic censuses continue to provide an unequaled panorama of the country’s economy from early 19th century to the present. The structure and practices of the nation’s business and industry continue to evolve; the censuses will evolve with them, just as they have since 1810. [*]

The Economic Census provides a important long-run perspective on key changes in the economy, such as the changes in the revenue structure of newspapers and periodicals.  Big data is emerging as a key driver of new businesses and services.  Our economic situation is getting more complex. We need increased support for public data, not the complete elimination of fundamental data programs.

Trade-offs in resource use are an economic reality.  Recently the Census Bureau discontinued the venerable U.S. Statistical Abstract.  The Census Bureau stated:

In preparation for the Fiscal Year 2012 (FY 2012) budget, the Census Bureau did a comprehensive review of a number of programs and had to make difficult proposals to terminate and reduce a number of existing programs in order to acquire funds for higher priority programs. The decision to propose the elimination of this program was not made lightly.

Not having the U.S. Statistical Abstract makes accessing standard, basic data more difficult. But at least that cut didn’t reduce the underlying public factual base.

To demonstrate my appreciation for economic reality, I’ll propose alternative budget cuts.  Rather than cutting investment in public data, I propose cutting public spending on healthcare.  The public should be informed that, due to lack of funds, the government suggests that they ride bikes and eat vegetables as a substitute for some medical care.  That’s a trade-off worth making.  If that’s not cutting close enough to home to seem honest to you, here’s another proposal: cut public support for research on economic theory.  We have enough economic theory.  We need to spend more time looking at economic data.

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[*] From p. 375 in Micarelli, William F. (1998), “Evolution of the United States Economic Censuses: The Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,” Government Information Quarterly, v. 15, n. 3, pp. 335-377.

early history of paper not closely connected to elite writing

Paper from its invention has been important for much broader uses than storing and transmitting high-value symbolic arrangements.  The earliest paper, found in China from the second century BGC, apparently was used for wrapping objects. The Chinese used paper for writing by no later than the third century GC.  But writing may not have been the most common use of paper.  By the sixth century GC, the Chinese were using toilet paper.[1]  The market for toilet paper was probably bigger than the market for books.

Government and commercial paper needs seem to have driven the expansion of paper-making in Baghdad in the eighth century.  Ja`far ibn Yahyā Barmaki, the vizier of Caliph al-Rashīd, reportedly persuaded the caliph to construct a paper mill in Baghdad in 794.  Ja`far ibn Yahyā’s father and grandfather both also served as viziers to Abbasid caliphs.  Ja`far ibn Yahyā’s grandfather led the development of bureaucratic government record-keeping:

Genuine budgets began to be drawn up for the first time and offices sprang up for various departments.  The extensive staff of officials engaged in correspondence with the provinces and prepared estimates and accounts.  An influential stratum of officialdom, the Irano-Islamic class of secretaries (kuttab in Arabic, dabiran in Persian), was formed which considered itself as the main support of the state.  Their knowledge of the complex system of the kharaj (land tax) which took account of not only land quality, but also the produce of the crops sown, made the officials of the diwan al-Kharaj (Department of Finance) the guardians of knowledge which was inaccessible to the uninitiated and was passed by inheritance.

Increasing demand for writing media for government bureaucrats and the relatively high cost of papyrus and parchment plausibly explain the construction of a paper mill in Baghdad in 794.

By the late eighth century, commercial paper had a dominant role in economic transactions in the Abbasid caliphate.  Coinage, which consisted mainly of dinars (gold coins) and dirhams (silver coins) had to be carefully assayed to detect and account for debasing and clipping.  Transporting large amounts of coins was cumbersome and dangerous.  A variety of written commercial instruments have long existed to facilitate economic transactions without the exchange or long-distance transportation of coins.[2]  The register of earnings of Jibra’īl ibn Bakhtīshū`, a physician from the Bakhtīshū` family of elite physicians, indicates the importance of commercial paper in Baghdad c. 800. According to that register, Jibra’īl ibn Bakhtīshū` earned “the equivalent of nine hundred thousand dinars in goods or gold, and ninety million six hundred thousand dirhams in paper money.”[3]  The term “paper money” from that register almost surely refers to bills of exchange written on paper.  Such bills apparently were the form of almost all of Jibra’īl ibn Bakhtīshū`’s monetary earnings.

The history of a key early communications infrastructure — paper — gives reason to doubt the significance of high-value symbolic arrangements for communications infrastructure. Government and commercial documents are not prestigious or highly literate forms of writing. They are more akin to wrapping paper (or toilet paper) than to books.  High-value symbolic arrangements, which today are associated with books, music, and movies, are relatively expensive to produce and relatively unimportant in daily practices.  Uses for communications media are much broader than transmitting high-value content.

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[1] An Arabic travel account from about 850 describes Chinese practice:

They are not very nice in point of cleanliness, and wash not with water when they ease nature, but only wipe themselves with paper.

Trans. Renaudot (1733) p. 14

[2] In the early Islamic world, these commercial instruments included hawala, suftaja, sakk (a linguistic precursor to the English word “cheque”), and ruq’a.  Geva (2012); Geva (2011) Ch. 6; Bloom (2001) pp. 135-41.  Nick Szabo compares these commercial instruments to latter European commercial practices.  Bloom (2001), p. 139, declares, “orders of payment dominated medieval economic life.”

[3] HP p. 263.  While some inconsistencies exist in the (translated) text, these figures seem to be the total earnings of Jibra’īl ibn Bakhtīshū` during his 23 years of service in Caliph al-Rashīd’s court from 786 to 809.  Writing on paper is more difficult to erase than writing on papyrus or writing on parchment. That was an important advantage for paper versus papyrus and parchment as a medium for commercial instruments.


Bloom, Jonathan. 2001. Paper before print: the history and impact of paper in the Islamic world. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Geva, Benjamin. 2011. The payment order of antiquity and the Middle Ages: a legal history. Oxford: Hart Publishing.

Geva, Benjamin. 2012. “Medieval Islamic Payment Instruments as Forerunners of the Western Bill of Exchange.” Lunch remarks, MOCOMILA Meeting, SAMA, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 7 January 2012.

HP: Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah, Ahmad ibn al-Qasim. English translation of History of Physicians (4 v.) Translated by Lothar Kopf. 1971. Located in: Modern Manuscripts Collection, History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD; MS C 294Online transcription.

Renaudot, Eusebius, trans. 1733. Abū Zayd Hasan ibn Yazīd Sīrāfī. Silsilat al-tawārīkh.  Translated from Arabic as: Ancient accounts of India and China, by two Mohammedan travellers, who went to those parts in the 9th century.  London, Printed for S. Harding.

COB-71: civil servants remained at work on sinking Titanic

Among myths and misunderstandings of the Titanic’s sinking, particularly regrettable is the lack of appreciation for the Titanic’s postal clerks.  These five men devotedly sought to fulfill their job assignments, even to the point of their deaths:

During Titanic’s frantic final hours on April 15, 1912, Titanic’s postal clerks, along with steward Albert Theissinger and several others, desperately tried to save the 200 sacks of registered mail by dragging them to the upper decks and possible safety.  Theissinger was the only survivor to recall seeing the mail clerks alive.  When he finally abandoned the seemingly suicidal task, the five mail clerks — Americans Oscar Scott Woody, John Starr March, and William Logan Gwinn and British postal workers James Bertram Williamson and John Richard Jago Smith— were still frantically at work, sloshing waist-deep in freezing water.

All five postal clerk went down to their deaths with the sinking Leviathan.  Ship steward Albert Theissinger, who was not a government bureaucrat, abandoned the ship and survived.  He latter recounted, “I urged them to leave their work.  They shook their heads and continued at their work.”  Think of the Titanic’s postal clerks when you think of civil servants in countries experiencing dire government budgetary crises.

In other bureaucratic issues this month, Bill Adair wrote an excellent profile of “Tom Haueter, a bureaucrat who may have saved your life.”  Adair observes:

And one thing to keep in mind about bureaucracy: It can be a good thing. It can put the brakes on impulsive political responses and make sure agencies thoroughly consider the impact of their actions.

We concur wholeheartedly.  Bureaucrats have in fact saved the world.

That’s all for this month’s Carnival of Bureaucrats.  Enjoy previous bureaucratic carnivals here.  Nominations of posts to be considered for inclusion in next month’s carnival should be submitted using Form 376: Application for Bureaucratic Recognition.