The tide flows out

Guess who’s naked now?

A widening gap between data and reality is distorting the government’s picture of the country’s economic health, overstating growth and productivity in ways that could affect the political debate on issues like trade, wages and job creation.

The shortcomings of the data-gathering system came through loud and clear here Friday and Saturday at a first-of-its-kind gathering of economists from academia and government determined to come up with a more accurate statistical picture.

The fundamental shortcoming is in the way imports are accounted for. A carburetor bought for $50 in China as a component of an American-made car, for example, more often than not shows up in the statistics as if it were the American-made version valued at, say, $100. The failure to distinguish adequately between what is made in America and what is made abroad falsely inflates the gross domestic product, which sums up all value added within the country…. Grappling with these blind spots, nearly all of the 80 experts at the conference, which was sponsored by the Upjohn Institute and the National Academy of Public Administration, agreed that the statistics now published tend to overstate the strength of the economy.

If you’re only watching GDP, you are getting an increasingly inaccurate picture of the economic situation. There is no way that economic activity is growing in a credit-based economy where credit is contracting. It’s like watching a football game where the team fails to get into the end zone, but somehow racks up 28 points on the scoreboard. As I’ve shown in RGD, the variance in reports for the same quarter is not infrequently larger than the average growth reported.

It’s interesting that they should finally admit these statistical problems now, just as the gap between reported growth and reported employment is becoming apparent to the casual observer.