Dropped by Gatekeepers
An investigator takes two steps forward, one back, then steps where?
January 8, 2017
Jeffery J. Smith

If It’s Not Asking Too Much

Have you ever done investigative journalism? It’s a bit like sales. You have to make a bunch of cold calls, not to customers but to sources. You have to pester repeatedly those people who have the information you seek. And you can’t do this in a straightforward manner. You have to make it worth the while of the sources to help you. It takes skill, and some lucky fools are born with it. Not me.

If those sources (who should know but …) can not tell the public how much is the worth of Earth in America, could they at least tell us the price? If not the price (a subset of value) of all the nature and privilege, how about at least the price of land and of bankers’ sovereignty? If not in layman terms, could they at least offer a key or lexicon so investigators can decipher their jargon? And if none of the above, can they at least answer their phone?

If they don’t answer, perhaps they assume I’ll go away, and they won’t even have to think about the big picture. Ouch! Thinking big-picture stretches one’s rarely used synapses. Far more comfortable to remain in mental ruts. However, it’s far more beneficial to society to have our bureaucrats be on the ball.

It’s not just an outsider who stumbles over jargon. The specialists, themselves, do, too. The statisticians who organize the figures for one government agency use a word in a way different from how statisticians use the same word at a different agency.

For example, the Bureau of Economic Analysis adds spending on utilities into the spending on housing. Meanwhile, most other agencies do not. Conversely, two agencies will use different words to mean the same thing, such as “spending” vs “outgo” vs “expenditures”. The right hand does not know what the left hand is up to.

Standardized Answers

Such confusion has reigned before. In the early days of trains, each railroad had a different width. The cars of one line could not connect to the locomotives of other lines. To overcome that obstacle, all the railroad corporations—despite being fierce rivals for freight and passengers—settled on a standard gauge. So sensible, but they were entrepreneurs, not bureaucrats.

Maybe it’s too much to ask government to have one clearing house for statistics but at least all the different agencies could have one common tongue. They could settle on one term with the same definition for each good or service. For each stat they present, if it differs from a statistic offered by another agency, they could explain what they did differently. Right now, the range between official measurements for seemingly the same is in the many trillions — not off by a few percentage points but by whole factors! The BEA gives in its GDP breakdown for real estate in 2014 a figure of $2.2 trillion, yet elsewhere in that vast agency, for Residences and Structures, the BEA gives a total price of $42 trillion.

Wouldn’t a little bit of consistency be considerate of our public bureaucrats? But they don’t do it. So far, I have been a lone wolf, howling into a deafening silent wind. However, one would think that it’d be in the best interest of bureaucrats, too, since currently they are just as puzzled by each others’ tallies and terminology. They talk right past each other but could benefit from understanding the point each one is trying to make.

Going Rogue

It’s actually not as bleak as it may seem. One can

*  try out different interpretations of official jargon, then

*  rule out the least likely, and

*  see which remaining one is the best fit

That seems to work to a degree.

Further, answers from thoughtful bureaucrats do come dribbling in. But they are more like clues than actual answers. One must piece them together into a patchwork of stats to scare up a rough estimate of what all our spending on nature actually looks like. But if I were an actual salesman, perhaps this would go far more easily and much further.

At some point, even while continuing to pursue the official grand tally for how much society as a whole spends for land, resources, and government-granted monopolies, I’ll turn to DIY and cobble together my own best estimate of this biggest flow in any economies GDP.

Reacting to Rogue

How would the professional number-crunchers react to an outsider’s amateur sleuthing and conjecturing? Would they feel bemused? Haughty? Going where those angels fear to tread does intimidate this investigator and make me feel open to charges of presumptuousness. But bear in mind that most breakthroughs do not come from within any field, according to Thomas Kuhn in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions, but from without.

These inquiries will at least teach the data-keepers that the answer does matter to some members of the taxpaying public. If that realization pries open the lid on data even just a sliver, that’d be a good thing. They may see that their number-crunching is not just well-paid busywork but that it also contributes to our understanding of how the economy actually operates, and how much surplus it generates.

The thing to do is to how society’s spending for things not produced (land, etc) impacts society’s output of things we do produce (goods and services). And in order for reporters to be heard by economists while making such points, reporters must raise their reporter cred. One way to accomplish that is to quote, in print, some of their colleagues that economists respect. For example,

* One noted how odd it is that it is so hard to find the answer to the question, “how much is land worth?” That was Professor Karl E. Case, writing for the National Bureau of Economic Research.

* Another noted the greater relevance of rent vs price. Dr. David Albouy of U Illinois and NBER was the only scholar to use the term “values" to mean “rents”.

Both of those scholars are worth mentioning. Perhaps, as my investigation continues, more will come to light.

It’s a challenge. But what part of this investigation has not been? It has all been a test of wills.

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Jeffery J. Smith

JEFFERY J. SMITH published The Geonomist, which won a California GreenLight Award, has appeared in both the popular press (e.g.,TruthOut) and academic journals (e.g., USC's “Planning and Markets”), been interviewed on radio and TV, lobbied officials, testified before the Russian Duma, conducted research (e.g., for Portland's mass transit agency), and recruited activists and academics to Progress.org. A member of the International Society for Ecological Economics and of Mensa, he lives in Mexico. Jeffery formerly was Chief Editor at Progress.org.