The data you need are just a click away – Twin Cities

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Ed Lotterman

Sometimes one encounters a revolution very quietly. That happened to me in June, 2002. Writing a mundane column on auto pricing, I wanted to use a snappy quote but was not positive about who said it. My editor said they would check with a colleague using something called Google. Ten minutes later I had the right name. It was the dawn of a new age.

Social media may be transforming society and culture, but easy access to accurate information is changing the economy.

An economist or engineer or anyone else can pull up and analyze data in seconds that would have taken hours to run down 20 years ago, even at a first-class research library. Among other things, search engines facilitate the fact-checking assertions one comes across. So try it yourself.

This week, Washington Post columnist Max Boot, in arguing that “Biden is making the same mistake as Trump on China,” claimed that President Donald Trump’s tariffs on imports from China had not only been ineffective, but harmful to us. Among other things, they supposedly “slashed agricultural exports.” That set off a gong.

I agreed with 98 percent of Boot’s arguments. And the tariffs probably did reduce U.S. ag exports somewhat from what they would have been otherwise. But “slashed?” No, not really.

I typed, “St Louis  Fed FRED” into my search engine. At that site’s search box I entered “ U.S. agricultural exports.” That gave me a list of data sets headed by “Exports of agricultural goods.”  I clicked on that a on the “Download” tab above the right hand side of the graph that appeared. Literally within seconds I had an Excel file headed “Exports of agricultural goods, Billions of Dollars, Quarterly, Seasonally Adjusted Annual Rate” on my screen. U.S. ag exports when Trump was in office averaged $149 billion a year. In Barack Obama’s second term they averaged $143 billion a year. Hard to say they were “slashed” since they actually rose slightly. The change was well within the usual sorts of fluctuations that have occurred over the longer run. If there is any lesson it is that variability in world crop yield and especially in exchange rates influence ag exports more than Trump’s tariffs did.”

(FRED, for Federal Reserve economic data, is a magnificent databank at the St. Louis Fed. Despite its title, little of the data is tabulated by the Federal Reserve, nearly all the numbers, outside of banking, come from other agencies and sources.)

In fairness, Boot included a link to a study by USDA’s Economic Research Service that found Trump’s trade measures against all nations, not just China, had cut our ag exports by $27 billion over 18 months. It is a sound study. The China tariffs are stupid. They have harmed our economy. They have harmed U.S. agriculture. But the ones on China alone did not “slash” anything.

Moreover, the average annual rate since Trump left office has been $190 billion a year. This has nothing to do with President Joe Biden. As Boot complains, Biden has left all of Trump’s measures in place. But the world economy has changed.

Take another example. New York Times columnist Russ Douthat recently argued Democrats faced electoral massacre because of extreme spending under Biden. That, he argued, was the key cause of inflation. Douthat was not alone. Cass Sunstein, a University of Chicago law professor who served in the Obama Administration and recently said the same thing in the New York Review of Books, a liberal publication by any standard.

But, despite much hullabaloo, some coming from Biden himself about splendid sums to “Build Back Better” or in an “Inflation Reduction Act,” did spending rise that much? There are long lags between passing legislation that “authorizes” spending to ones that “appropriate” it and then to final “outlays” of direct deposits made.

Again, go to the FRED search box. Type in “Federal outlays.” You should get a list of six data sets, including annual figures going back to 1901, “gross,” “net” and “interest only” by month or year and as a percentage of GDP. Periods range from 120 years to 80 to 60 to 40. So tread with some care. The most useful for recent comparisons is “Total Federal Outlays.” That has data by month from 1980 through October, 2022. When you get to the page for that file, again look for a “Download” tab above the right hand side of the chart.

One series, “Total Federal Outlays, Millions of Dollars, Monthly, Not Seasonally Adjusted” shows that the 18 months Biden has been in office average $530 billion a month compared to $560 billion for the last 18 of Trump’s months. So no big expansion, right?

Not certainly. since Biden’s months include a one-time write-off of some $500 billion in student loan debt that will actually be spread out for a decade. And the Trump months include three months of extraordinary payments connected to COVID-19 relief. Take those out and spending under Biden is, indeed, higher, $509 billion versus $418 billion per month for Trump.

Understand that both these depend on the fallacious idea that presidents are monarchs who start dictating outlays one minute after their oath of office. Given that the inauguration is four months into a fiscal year, a new president can have little effect on spending until a year after taking office. And actual sums depend on Congress. Some would argue that the big COVID-relief spending was rammed through by Democrats over Republican opposition and signed by a complaisant Trump who saw they had general public support.

High gas prices vex many and one reads all sorts of assertions. Search for the Energy Information administration. Use their search box to find “Weekly U.S. Field Production of Crude Oil.” On that page there is a chart and a table showing weekly production by months and weeks. Just above the chart is a tab for “Download Data (XLS file).” That gives you your own spreadsheet to work with.

And here, one finds that the average while Biden has been in office, 12.1 million barrels per day, is up from the 11 million bpd for Trump’s time in the Oval Office. But it is lower than the 13 million barrels hit for a few months of early 2019 before COVID set in. Biden’s policies may cut oil output in the future. He would like them to in the long run. But they have not set in yet.

There are many more examples of finding actual data with little effort. And yes, there are crucial catches and details in many data series. Nevertheless, if more people took time to look at the actual data instead of accepting “general wisdom,” the level of debate of public issues would be higher. So as one-time presidential candidate Ross Perot would say, “Look it up!”



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