The stripper, the Congressman, and why we undervalue statistical bedrock

31st January, 2022

At 2am on October 9th, 1974, police in the picturesque tidal basin area of Washington DC spotted a speeding car, weaving around, headlights off. They pulled it over, and out jumped a flamboyantly dressed woman, yelling in both English and Spanish.

She promptly threw herself into the water, and had to be hauled out again. In the car was an elderly man, glasses broken. He was steaming drunk. More to the point, he was a senior congressman, Wilbur Mills, and she was a celebrated erotic dancer, “Fanne Foxe”.

It was the beginning of the third most notorious sex scandal in American politics. But to my fellow nerds, the disgracing of Congressman Mills set in train a game of political musical chairs. This game had a welcome side-effect…

…the appointment of Alice Rivlin as the head of a brand new body: the Congressional Budget Office. She was the candidate every sensible person would have wanted for the job, but she’d been blocked by a congressional dinosaur who thought it was no place for a woman.

Once the dinosaur had been reshuffled in the wake of Wilbur Mills’s departure, Dr Rivlin would do much to establish the reputation of the CBO. Still, forty years later she noted “I owed my job to Fanne Foxe.”

It’s a silly slice of political trivia in some ways. But perhaps it typifies the way that we take serious independent analysis for granted. Do we put the best person in the job, or not? In Alice Rivlin’s case, all depended on a rather juicy quirk of history.

I think we undervalue the presence of high-quality, non-partisan organisations such as the CBO, the Census Bureau, and in the UK, the Office for National Statistics. There is very little glamour in what they do, but it serves as a kind of statistical bedrock.

When such organisations do their jobs well, we all benefit: the state, companies and individual citizens all have a vastly clearer view of the challenges around them. When such data-gathering and data-analysing bodies stumble, we suffer.

And where such institutions do not exist, or are subject to partisan control, we simply cannot see the road ahead of us. We’re as helpless as a drunk Congressman, glasses smashed, trying to drive with the headlights off.

I’ve much more to say about this – and other ways in which we under-rate the numbers all around us, in my latest book. It is out on tomorrow in paperback in the US and Canada with the title “The Data Detective”.

Elsewhere it’s called “How To Make The World Add Up” – it was top of the Sunday Times Business Bestseller lists in 2021, although I think it’s much more than a business book.

If you’ve read the book and enjoyed it – thank you! Please spread the word. If not, now would be a wonderful time to pick up a copy.

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