by ilene - April 6th, 2010 5:00 pm
Interview with Rick Davis of the Consumer Metrics Institute
Introduction: Richard Davis is President of the Consumer Metrics Institute (CMI). At the Institute, Rick measures real-time consumer transactions as an objective indicator of consumer demand and the associated health of the US economy. In this interview, we explore the history behind the government-published numbers and the reasons prompting Rick to devise better ways to measure the state of the economy.
Ilene: Rick, what got you interested in measuring economic numbers?
Rick: I first became frustrated with the current state of economic data after learning about the history of the collection process and the government’s continued reliance on 70 year old concepts. The government began collecting economic data during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s (FDR) second term, around 1937. There was concern that the recovery from the 1937-1938 recession (i.e., a recession nested within the Great Depression) was stalling. The economy had been improving significantly from early 1933 through 1936 before the wheels came off the recovery in mid-1937. FDR’s administration realized it did not have adequate data to monitor the economy and the administration asked the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) to look into this problem. Wesley Clair Mitchell set out to find data that would help FDR’s administration address its concerns about the U.S. economy.
Wesley Clair Mitchell was a once-in-a-generation economic genius when it came to data collection. He collected over 500 interesting data sets measuring items such as sales, employment, railcar loadings--items that would allow him to constantly monitor the health of the economy. Most of these things are still measured, and the numbers have evolved into the core reports put out by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA).
What frustrated me was that the data sets measured by Dr. Mitchell were developed in the 1930s and designed to capture those things that were important to the 1930s economy. They are not geared for today’s economy. Things that mattered in the mid-20th century simply cannot completely describe what is happening in the 2010 economy.
by ilene - March 7th, 2010 7:44 pm
Excellent read by Steve Randy Waldman at Interfluidity.
Wednesday morning, I attended a Roosevelt Institute conference, on the theme “Make Markets Be Markets“. It was an enjoyable affair, with a bunch of smart, well-known speakers saying things I broadly agree with, mostly on financial reform. A wrinkle I had not really expected was how frequently, and rather charmingly, the name of the gentleman after whom the Institute is named would be invoked. FDR, and the 1930s generally, were very much with us that morning.
I have much to spout on the subject of financial reform; I am several posts in arrears on that. But by the end of the conference, I was fascinating myself with a little thought experiment.
Suppose the good guys win. Better yet, suppose they had never lost. Suppose banks had never ventured beyond conservatively prudent lending; that there had been no housing, internet, or credit bubble. Forlorn cul-de-sacs surrounded by mouldering homes were never cut from the Arizona desert. Webvan and pets.com were rejected straight off by investors rather than soaring against all reason then dying in an unreasonably sudden collapse.
In a world without bubbles and, let’s not mince words, in a world without fraud in substance if not in law, would we, or how could we, have enjoyed two decades of near “full employment” and apparent growth? Without all the internet companies that were forseeably destined to fail, without all the housing construction, without all the spending by employees whom we know now and should have known then were not actually participating in economic production, without all the spending by people feeling rich on stock or housing gains that would eventually collapse in their or someone else’s arms, what kind of economy would we have built?
These are not questions that answer themselves. They are unknowable counterfactuals.
But we do know something about the 1930s. In 1930, Keynes famously proclaimed “we have magneto trouble”, with the implication that the then incipient depression was due to a kind of remediable, technical failure. Less famously, Keynes was wrong. The post-war economy that finally put paid to the Great Depression was an economy different in kind from that of the go-go 1920s. One piece of that was financial sector reform: there were the securities acts and the FDIC and an astonishing forty years without major banking crises. But there was…