The Economist looks at several ways in which the US federal government calculates certain economic statistics that might make our economic situation look most appealing. Here is their conclusion:
Conspiracy theorists might conclude that the American government is trying to nip and tuck its way to attractiveness. The persistent downward revisions to GDP growth do look suspicious. But in other areas American number-crunchers seem to believe that their measures are better; indeed, history shows that European statistical agencies have often later adopted their methods. The world’s biggest economy is also much less bothered about the international comparability of its numbers than smaller European countries. True, when the statisticians at the IMF or the OECD produce comparative data, they do so on the basis of standardised definitions. The snag comes if investors fail to grasp that official national figures can show the American economy in an overly flattering light.
Complex numbers, such as these, can be difficult to operationalize or calculate but they also need to be interpreted. Economic experts may know about these methodological differences and can account for these but I’m guessing that the average citizen of the US or European countries has less of an idea about what is going on.
Another US figure that has recently attracted methodological attention is unemployment. While the US unemployment rate has undoubtedly risen in the economic crisis of recent years, it has its own quirks. One part that has been discussed in that people have to be actively looking for work in the last 4 weeks and once people move beyond that cut-off point, they are no longer counted as being unemployed. Another area involves those who work less than full-time but want full-time work and could be classified as “underemployed.” (You can see how the Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates unemployment here.)
(It is also interesting in this story that they compare the calculation of these statistics to cosmetic surgery, apparently an important marker of American culture.)