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Invisible Hand of Data? – a small example of your tax dollars at work?

Some may remember Trading Places and the importance of the crop report on frozen concentrated orange juice to that movie. It turns out USDA commodities reports and their data are still important. For example, the Times reports that when the USDA decided to cut a program that produced “dozens of long-standing statistical reports on a wide range of farming activities, including beekeeping, hop growing and flower farming,” those industries were upset. That is not a surprise. The reports helped farmers “decide how much to plant and how many animals to raise; they use the information to persuade bankers to lend them money and to advocate for other types of government support.” The cut was going to save a reported $11 million a year. After some outcry, the decision was reversed for most, but not all, the sectors. Whether those not saved failed to lobby is unclear.

Another factor may have been better methods to collect and share data. The Times reports, “The U.S.D.A. said in a notice this month that savings obtained by creating a national operations center to centralize data collection had freed enough money to keep the reports going.” So what was the lever? Was there one lever? We may never know. Also interesting to me, is that hops industry has been paying to subsidize the reports (about $15,000 per year), was told it was not needed this year, but the industry is setting aside the money in case the budget crunches to come again jeopardize the ability to produce the reports.

I am wondering what centralized data collection did here. If it reduced internal costs, that seems good. But if the data were open for those in the industry to study and for others to create tools that approach may further reduce costs or shift them. Here, I am drawing on a paper written by David Robinson, Harlan Yu, William Zeller, and Ed Felten, called Government Data and the Invisible Hand. They

“argue that the executive branch should focus on creating a simple, reliable and publicly accessible infrastructure that exposes the underlying data. Private actors, either nonprofit or commercial, are better suited to deliver government information to citizens and can constantly create and reshape the tools individuals use to find and leverage public data. The best way to ensure that the government allows private parties to compete on equal terms in the provision of government data is to require that federal websites themselves use the same open systems for accessing the underlying data as they make available to the public at large.”

It is not entirely clear to me what is going on with the USDA and these reports. But if the government is improving how it gathers data and shares it, that seems like a good thing. If it is also analyzing data and writing reports, that activity too has merit. It may be better to have a somewhat objective party offer the data in a report format. And, if the government is putting that data out there so that others can interact with it, a range of good things could flow from private reports. Reports that question official stories would be more possible. Apps and tools could be created so that those who may not be able to pay for a report could still use the data and maybe learn from it over time. Raw data about hops and weather or catfish and water temperatures and so on, might allow farmers, conservationists, and others to learn how to achieve balances in farming techniques, cost management, and interests in sustainability. None of these potential upsides is guaranteed. But I think the potential for them increases in a system that recognizes where government is well-placed to provide fundamental resources and some neutrality (and thus needs funding) and where to allow non-governmental actors to draw on those resources to be creative.