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On the Third Hand: Fudge

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The federal Bureau of Economic Analysis has just announced that — surprise, surprise! — that U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) fell 2.9 percent in the first quarter, instead of rising 0.1 percent. Originally, the Commerce Department agency said first-quarter GDP had grown, rather than fallen, because Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) coverage expansion had added 1.1 percentage of growth to the household spending total.

Many news organizations used this as evidence that the PPACA exchange program and Medicaid expansion program had led to a big increase in health care spending.

Originally, I was going to write a story about that myself. Then I clicked through to the full report behind the press release and found a footnote explaining that the BEA analysts had no actual first-quarter health care spending data; were just estimating. In other words, guessing in a classy way.

I tried to draw people’s attention to the reality that the BEA was just guessing, but other folks kept parroting the bit from the short release about health care spending rising a breath-taking 9.9 percent. Now, the BEA is saying, “Uh, never mind. Spending actually dropped 1.4 percent.”

No kidding.

See also: On the Third Hand: Numbers

On the one hand, one possible interpretation is that figuring out these numbers is hard, and that the BEA analysts came up with the original GDP growth estimate as well as they could.

On the other hand, maybe another possible interpretation is that the BEA was less energetic about highlighting the use of guess-based data than it could have been because some folks thought it would be nice to have GDP go up in an unfootnoted way, rather than up with asterisks.

See also: On the Third Hand: Games

On the third hand, another interpretation is that many of the folks who are responsible for watching Washington are stretched too thin to read the full text of major market-moving government reports…

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