Dueling Anecdotes are No Subsitute for Real Data

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coburn coverThe stimulus anecdote war is escalating. This week Sen. Tom Coburn issued a report that is highly critical of some 100 specific Recovery Act projects around the country. The Oklahoma Republican uses these examples to bolster his argument that “Congress chose the wrong approach to stimulating the economy by spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need.”

Although Coburn claims these example were found “after a review of thousands of projects,” there is every indication that the research that went into the report consisted of little more than energetic keyword searching in media archives such as Google News to find articles about projects that could be easily mocked. For example: a tunnel under a highway designed to be used by turtles and the repaving of a backup runway at the little-used John Murtha Airport in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. This is the same superficial methodology that has long been used to ridicule projects funded by Congressional earmarks.

While members of the Obama Administration may be unhappy about Coburn’s report, they cannot legitimately complain about the way it was put together. The document seems to be meant as a rebuttal to another clip job — with an opposite message — that was issued by Vice President Joe Biden as a purported progress report on the Recovery Act.

Yet Ed DeSeve, Senior Advisor to the President for Recovery Act Implementation, fired back with a 19-page critique of Coburn’s ¬†description of the 100 projects, claiming in most cases that the depiction was false or misleading — or that the project itself is “still under review.”

One interesting exchange concerned item number 73 on Coburn’s list: “Large federal contractors who have paid big fines for violating environmental, safety, and discrimination rules are receiving stimulus funds.” He then cites CACI International (profiled here), one of whose subsidiaries was the employer of civilian interrogators accused of involvement in torture and abuse of inmates at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. DeSeve’s document ignores the question of CACI’s track recoprd and simply notes that it is “one of the 100 biggest federal contractors overall” and that the Forest Service stimulus contracts cited by Coburn are a tiny portion of its government business. This is apparently supposed to make any transgressions by the company irrelevant.

The cherrypicking of self-serving anecdotes from secondary sources — by either proponents or critics of the Recovery Act — is no substitute for real data. We are still waiting for the Office of Management and Budget to release its final rules on how federal agencies should collect data on Recovery Act spending and job creation. Assuming that those rules provide for thorough reporting, we can look forward to the day when debates on the effectiveness of the Act are based on a more solid foundation.

Crossposted on the STAR Coalition website blog.

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