Politics of Numbers, The

Politics of Numbers, The

William Alonso
Paul Starr
Copyright Date: 1987
Published by: Russell Sage Foundation
Pages: 496
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7758/9781610440028
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  • Book Info
    Politics of Numbers, The
    Book Description:

    The Politics of Numbersis the first major study of the social and political forces behind the nation's statistics. In more than a dozen essays, its editors and authors look at the controversies and choices embodied in key decisions about how we count-in measuring the state of the economy, for example, or enumerating ethnic groups. They also examine the implications of an expanding system of official data collection, of new computer technology, and of the shift of information resources into the private sector.

    A Volume in the Russell Sage Foundation Census Series

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-002-8
    Subjects: Population Studies, Political Science, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Foreword
    (pp. vii-x)
    Charles F. Westoff

    “The Population of the United States in the 1980s” is an ambitious series of volumes aimed at converting the vast statistical yield of the 1980 census into authoritative analyses of major changes and trends in American life.The Politics of Numbersresembles the other volumes in this series in that its point of departure is the United States census; it differs from the other volumes by going far beyond census data to an examination of the compilation and analysis of other official data as well. It is the only volume in the series devoted to the governmental data system itself,...

  3. Table of Contents
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  4. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-6)
    WILLIAM ALONSO and PAUL STARR

    Every day, from the morning paper to the evening news, Americans are served a steady diet of statistics. We are given the latest figures for consumer prices and the unemployment rate, lagging and leading economic indicators, reading scores, and life expectancies, not to mention data on crime, divorce, and the money supply. Most of these numbers are official in the sense that they are produced by government in what are generally presumed to be impersonal and objective bureaucracies. Of course, in some countries, where the regimes are distrusted, official numbers are also routinely disbelieved. But where the statistical collecting and...

  5. THE SOCIOLOGY OF OFFICIAL STATISTICS
    (pp. 7-58)
    PAUL STARR

    Social scientists routinely use statistics from official sources as ameansof analysis, but less frequently do they take the statistics or their sources as anobjectof analysis. If they do, they generally are interested in knowing whether—or showing how—social or political processes have distorted the results and, therefore, why they may be safely ignored or, if possible, what may be done to adjust the data or to improve official statistical practice. Not surprisingly, social scientists in the academy, business, and government approach statistics primarily with their own practical interests in mind—methodology, commerce, and policy.

    Yet...

  6. PART I THE POLITICS OF ECONOMIC MEASUREMENT
    • 1 THE POLITICS OF COMPARATIVE ECONOMIC STATISTICS: THREE CULTURES AND THREE CASES
      (pp. 61-82)
      RAYMOND VERNON

      In a world that groans under the weight of the statistics it produces, it would be astonishing if statistical comparisons of different national economies had not worked their way into the political arena. One can hardly make a comparative statement about economic performance without exposing a political nerve in one or another of the countries compared. Almost any such comparison—unemployment, the rate of inflation, the distribution of income, or change in gross national product—provides ammunition in international debates and domestic political struggles.

      To explore the interplay between politics and statistics, it may help to recognize from the beginning...

    • 2 THE POLITICS OF INCOME MEASUREMENT
      (pp. 83-132)
      CHRISTOPHER JENCKS

      Every March since 1948 the Census Bureau’sCurrent Population Survey(CPS) has included a supplement asking how much income every adult in every sample household received during the previous calendar year. Every year the bureau also publishes a summary of its findings, consisting of a short introduction and a large number of tables and currently titled “Money Income of Households, Families, and Persons in the United States.”¹ The introduction to this report always begins by comparing the change in median family income over the previous year to the change in the Consumer Price Index (CPI). Following conventional practice, the bureau...

    • 3 POLITICAL PURPOSE AND THE NATIONAL ACCOUNTS
      (pp. 133-152)
      MARK PERLMAN

      Economic data are constantly used in the interpretation of economic events and the formulation of economic policies by both government and the private sector. But which data are collected and how they are manipulated and analyzed depend on the underlying objectives of a statistical system. If and when the purposes of a system are redefined, new objectives may require different choices in data collection and analysis.

      This chapter takes as a case study the growth of national income accounting in the United States from 1933 to the present, focusing on its intellectual origins and changes in objectives during the formative...

  7. PART II THE POLITICS OF POPULATION MEASUREMENT
    • 4 THE 1980 CENSUS IN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
      (pp. 155-186)
      MARGO A. CONK

      The 1980 census was marked by controversy from beginning to end, from its initial planning phase to its final reporting period. Some critics claimed that it cost too much, invaded people’s privacy, or collected too much information. Others charged that the census undercounted the population, missing people in poor, urban, and minority neighborhoods, or that it did not ask the right questions, that it reported too little, too late. Fifty-four lawsuits were filed by cities, states, private citizens, and lobbying groups against the Census Bureau charging that the bureau inadequately or improperly counted the population. Many of the knotty technical,...

    • 5 POLITICS AND THE MEASUREMENT OF ETHNICITY
      (pp. 187-234)
      WILLIAM PETERSEN

      Age and sex, the two characteristics of a population about which almost every census or survey asks, exemplify so-called hard data. The interviewer does not even need a response to specify a person’s sex. Age is frequently misstated, but whether or not the respondent gives it accurately, various techniques can be used to approximate the single true figure. Other attributes frequently included in census or survey schedules, however, are decidedly softer. In classifying persons by marital status, one must decide whether to designate common-law marriages as the equivalent of those that the state has sanctioned, or whether a divorced person...

    • 6 THE SOCIAL AND POLITICAL CONTEXT OF POPULATION FORECASTING
      (pp. 235-258)
      NATHAN KEYFITZ

      Numbers provide the rhetoric of our age. In discussing world poverty it is better to say that there are 3 billion poor people, and there will be 4 billion by the end of the century, than merely to say that there are now many poor and they are increasing; and similarly in a discussion of food, that there are 700 million hungry today, and there will be a billion twenty years from now unless we do something about it.

      It is not customary, and even not courteous, for a listener to inquire into the relation of such numbers to actual...

  8. PART III STATISTICS AND DEMOCRATIC POLITICS
    • 7 PUBLIC STATISTICS AND DEMOCRATIC POLITICS
      (pp. 261-274)
      KENNETH PREWITT

      If to paraphrase Harold Lasswell, politics has become how much for how many, it is clear that measurement moves toward the center of political life. The result is a politics of numbers. What is to be counted? By whom? Can the numbers be trusted? In which direction is the trend line moving? Who is at fault for the (now numerically defined) failure of a policy or program? The intrusion of numbers into politics is global, as the world’s nations now endlessly debate issues couched in numerical estimates and forecasts: weapon counts, oil reserves, trade balances, North–South inequities, debt ratios....

    • 8 THE POLITICAL FOUNDATIONS OF AMERICAN STATISTICAL POLICY
      (pp. 275-302)
      STEVEN KELMAN

      In nineteenth-century America, federal spending ran at less than 3 percent of the GNP—and most of that was spent on interest payments for debts incurred during wars and on pensions to disabled war veterans.¹ Most Americans saw government’s role in society as very limited.

      Yet one thing a government that saw itself as doing very little did do was gather statistics. The Constitution mandated that the federal government undertake a “decennial enumeration” to determine representation in the House, making the United States the first country in the world to take a regular census.² As early as 1810 the federal...

    • 9 STATISTICS AND THE POLITICS OF MINORITY REPRESENTATION: THE EVOLUTION OF THE VOTING RIGHTS ACT SINCE 1965
      (pp. 303-328)
      ABIGAIL THERNSTROM

      The changing, expanding use of national statistics runs like a leitmotif throughout the history of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. It was precisely the point of the act to substitute a statistical rule of thumb for the extended and complex judicial process by which Fifteenth Amendment questions were traditionally decided. The act identified a violation wherever voter registration or turnout in the presidential election of 1964 fell below 50 percent and a literacy test was used to screen potential registrants.¹ All states or counties fitting those criteria were “covered” and thus subject to a set of stringent remedies.

      Numbers have...

  9. PART IV STATISTICS AND AMERICAN FEDERALISM
    • 10 THE POLITICS OF PRINTOUTS: THE USE OF OFFICIAL NUMBERS TO ALLOCATE FEDERAL GRANTS-IN-AID
      (pp. 331-342)
      RICHARD P. NATHAN

      Federal grants-in-aid to state and local governments, expressed as a percentage of the general revenue raised by state and local governments, tripled from 10 percent in the mid-1950s to 30 percent in the mid-1980s. This growth substantially outpaced inflation. Based on federal budget data, federal grants to states and localities rose from $10 billion in 1964 to nearly $100 billion in 1984. In the process, not surprisingly, the form of federal aid also changed. In the 1970s, there was a shift to larger, more flexible, and more automatic programs as expressed in “the revenue sharing idea.” These new forms of...

    • 11 FEDERAL STATISTICS IN LOCAL GOVERNMENTS
      (pp. 343-362)
      JUDITH INNES DE NEUFVILLE

      For decades the federal government has used statistics to carry out policy at the local level. Accordingly, much of the local statistical enterprise has evolved in response to federal statistical requirements. Federal programs provided the original impetus and funding, and the changing forms of federalism have left their stamp on local institutions, attitudes, and statistical practices.

      Two important periods in the federal grant system since World War II may be distinguished, each of which had significant, but different, impacts on local statistical activity. The first, from 1946 to 1970, involved predominantly categorical grants; the second, since 1970, involved mainly block...

    • 12 THE MANAGED IRRELEVANCE OF FEDERAL EDUCATION STATISTICS
      (pp. 363-392)
      JANET A. WEISS and JUDITH E. GRUBER

      In the perennial debates over the appropriate role of the federal government in education policy, the usual fierce controversy occasionally gives way to tranquil pockets of agreement.¹ One island of apparent consensus is education statistics. Nearly everyone agrees that the federal government appropriately collects and keeps data about the national condition of education.² One federal agency or another has been doing so since 1869. But agreement at this global level—that there should exist national education statistics—does not necessarily mean agreement aboutwhicheducation statistics to collect. Of all the questions policymakers might ask about schools, schooling, teaching, and...

  10. PART V THE NEW POLITICAL ECONOMY OF STATISTICS
    • 13 TECHNOLOGY, COSTS, AND THE NEW ECONOMICS OF STATISTICS
      (pp. 395-414)
      JOSEPH W. DUNCAN

      The collection, processing, and distribution of statistics are changing dramatically as a result of the deregulation of telecommunications, sharply declining costs of computer processing and online mass storage, and the advent of decentralized computing power in the form of minicomputers and even microcomputers in the office and home.¹ This chapter describes some of the forces, especially technical changes, that will affect the basic costs and economics of federal statistical activities. I do not intend to make forecasts or predictions of technical change or to provide a comprehensive review of the technical “state of the art.” Rather, I cite developments now...

    • 14 WHO WILL HAVE THE NUMBERS? THE RISE OF THE STATISTICAL SERVICES INDUSTRY AND THE POLITICS OF PUBLIC DATA
      (pp. 415-448)
      PAUL STARR and ROSS CORSON

      Something new has happened to social and economic statistics, and the implications for the production and availability of knowledge about society are not widely and fully appreciated. As a governmental activity, statistics is centuries old. As a popular interest and amateur form of social research, it dates from the early 1800s and as a profession from the late 1800s.¹ But as a business, it is a phenomenon of the mid-twentieth century. And only with the technological and economic changes of the 1970s did there emerge a substantial industry of private firms selling repackaged public data and privately collected statistics, statistical...

  11. Name Index
    (pp. 449-460)
  12. Subject Index
    (pp. 461-474)