“If there were no statistics, we wouldn’t even suspect that we work so well!”
A phrase from the film An Office Romance
Statistics are the nation’s secret reserves. Reports and accounts, columns and graphs “in percentage against the corresponding period,” etc., hide the national wealth and encode people’s happiness. They encode so much that a sound-minded individual does not even suspect how generous the digital wellbeing is. I advise those who have given way to despair in these hard times of disappointment to uncork a bottle of champagne and read a state statistics service document, “On the Socioeconomic Situation in Ukraine in January-July 2013” (http://www.ukrstat. gov.ua).
This is sure to cheer you up. Without retelling all the chapters of a 95-page source of optimism, I will only note this country’s firm step down the road of economic prosperity. On the rise is the output of cast iron, industrial products, oil, coal, eggs, and milk. Trade, export, and import are growing, as are wages. At the same time, unemployment is shrinking and the consumer price index has stopped dead in its tracks. Only the sharply rising demand for traveling bags and suitcases suggests that this world is not exactly as nice as it is depicted in reports.
The statistical roulette turned our civil servants into gamblers long ago. Back in the times of Khrushchev’s thaw, Ukrainian actors Yurii Tymoshenko and Yukhym Berezin, known throughout the USSR as Tarapunka and Shtepsel, joked in this connection: why should I go to a store for milk if I can switch on the radio and “it will pour on its own”? Now milk is pouring not only from the radio, but also from all the media we know, including the Internet. The Soviet approach to statistics has not changed in principle and has assumed still worse features in details. Earlier, hundreds of institutions used to sweat over every figure, bringing assessment methods into line with ideological standards. Millions of the produced tons of cast iron and steel, quintals of wheat, and pairs of shoes inspired awe in the Soviet man over the global scale of industrial output and brought it home to him that his personal wish to buy a pair of boots or a kilo of meat is contemptible. Now it is only specialists who need statistics on cast iron and footwear. We, consumers, sometimes do not even know what country made a product hidden under an unknown brand name. We can only guess by price that Czech beer is made here and New Zealand butter there. So why is the State Statistics Committee (Derzhkomstat) wasting time and money, continuing to march down the road of Red commissars? Why stuff us with uninteresting and, what is more, selective information? We read in the chapter on agriculture: “Agrarian businesses (except for small ones) increased the output of swine and fowl by 14.1 and 16.4 percent, respectively, and reduced the output of cattle by 0.6 percent in January-July 2013 compared to the same period of 2012. The average daily rate of cattle fattening increased…” What do these data mean if small-scale businesses are excluded? Maybe, it is about a negligible fraction of the total livestock? For we learn from one chapter of the Derzhkomstat report that the production of milk has grown by 1.6 percent and from another that more than 77 percent of all milk in this country is produced by small-scale farms. I wonder what the state has to do with the size of your grandmother’s cow’s udder. In general, carelessness is hardly a good quality in the field of statistics. How can different categories be possibly mixed in one item? “The total livestock of cattle increased in 22 regions, including cows in 8 regions, swine, sheep, and goats in 20 regions, and all kinds of fowl in 13 regions.” The phrase needs to be explained to non-rural statisticians. If you gather cows, hens, and goats under the same roof, the cattle population on the farm will not increase, even though this company of animal creates quite an impression.
The next figure is more important than thousands of goats with big or small horns. A statistical report is aimed at producing information for official spin. Only a few items from a huge report are intended for the general public, for example, one on the growth of average wages. The latter grew to 3,181 hryvnias in the first six months of this year. Believe it or not, the state service has vested us with wealth, and this function of it seems to be in special demand now. It pleases the government to pat its compatriots on well-filled pockets, while the unemployed have no alternative but to catch up with the average front-rank workers. A mobilizing factor, isn’t it? But it seems that some down-to-earth people, unaware of the successes of the vertical chain of command, have wormed their way into the closely-knit team of Derzhkomstat optimists. Some are writing that export and import increased by 2 and 7 percent, respectively, in a dollar equivalent, while others are saying, on the contrary, that “in comparison with the first half of 2012, export and import were 93.5 and 87.2 percent, respectively. The negative foreign trade balance made up 797.4 million dollars.” It is too contradictory for one document. Or take another fact that discredits economic successes. This country saw 8.4 kilometers of major highways built in the first six months. Other sources say, incidentally, that the total length of hard-surface highways is 160,000 km. They have been laid in the whole period of the existence of motor and animal-drawn transport. In other words, it means 160 km a year since the times of Prince Volodymyr. So why is the generally successful economy of a 45-million-strong country, which has given up its positions in construction and cargo transfer only, incapable of building a hundred kilometers of badly needed roads?
The answer to this and other questions about principles of the statistical assessment of this country can be found in the chapter “Crime Situation.” Without furnishing any comparative data, it simply cites the Prosecutor General’s Office to show the number of offences committed from January to July 2013. It is a staggering number of 471,400. In the whole 2010 society was struck to learn that crime had increased by 15 percent to 501,000 cases. But now almost the same number of crimes is committed in six months. For this reason, Derzhkomstat omits the information that compromises the authorities. Why cast a shadow on the medals of the prosecutors and ministers who excelled in this walk of life?
Statistics rarely satisfies. This is why it is called the most inexact science. A joke says – not only in this country – that computers calculate according to programs and statistical offices according to instructions. Nevertheless, we have no alternative sources of information about the country’s life. We have to use Derzhkomstat information, as we do that of the regional power-consumption agency, irrespective of its quality. At the same time, monopolism is not a perennial thing. The information field is rapidly expanding, and no statistical office will ever be able to pull the wool over the eyes without consequences – particularly when differences between the real and the statistical life are too glaring to give a condescending smile.
The deputy chief of the Odesa Oblast Administration once visited a district center, Kotovsky, on the occasion of a holiday. Speaking to local residents, he rashly cited a statistical report that the average wage was 3,000 hryvnias. He was booed. The district had not yet received any general information on the growth of wellbeing by that moment.
US journalist Darrel Huff wrote a bestseller, How to Lie with Statistics, 60 years ago. The book’s materials were widely used against public opinion spin. One of the chapters is on asking questions. For example, if a half of patients in a hospital have died and the other half survived, one should not ask about deaths. You can say the truth in a statistical report that all the patients have been discharged from the clinic and a half of them have got rid of illnesses forever. It seems to me that our Derzhkomstat staff still reads Huff very attentively.