Lies, Damned Lies, and . . .

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Statistics are useful things.  But too often, they give a false sense of precision.  "Counting" the jobs "created or saved" by the stimulus is one of our more ludicrous governmental activities of the moment.  For one thing, the administration has made no attempt to net out the jobs that were not created, or destroyed, because the government had diverted the money from other uses.  For another, as Bruce Bartlett points out, your count is only as good as your counters.  And some of them aren't very good:

How did Kentucky shoe store owner Buddy Moore save nine jobs with just $889.60 in federal stimulus money? He didn't, and that's turning into a big headache for him.

Moore's store in Campbellsville, Ky., filed one of 156,614 reports from recipients of stimulus dollars designed to show how money from the $787 billion program is being spent, and how many jobs the funds have created or saved.

Moore's slice of the stimulus came in an $889.60 order from the Army Corps of Engineers for nine pairs of work boots for a stimulus project.

Moore says he's been supplying the Corps with boots for at least two decades. This year, because he provided safety shoes for work funded by the stimulus package, he said he got a call from the Corps telling him he had to fill out a report for Recovery.gov detailing how he'd used the $889.60, and how many jobs it had helped him to create or save. He later got another call, asking him if he'd finished the report.

"The paperwork was unreal," said Moore, who added that he tried to figure out how to file the forms online, then gave up and asked his daughter to help.

Paula Moore-Kirby, 42 years old, had less trouble with the Web site, but couldn't work out how to answer the question about how many jobs her father had created or saved. She couldn't leave it blank, either, she said. After several calls to a helpline for recipients she came away with the impression that she would hear back if there was a problem with her response, and have a chance to correct it. So with 15 minutes to go before the reporting deadline, she sent in her answer: nine jobs, because her father helped nine members of the Corps to work.

To be clear, my assumption is that given the strange behavior of credit markets, especially during the first half of the year, the stimulus probably did create some jobs--I think the government took in money that would otherwise have done nothing.  But its figure is both certainly inflated, and absurdly precise.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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