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Opinion Samuelson: Here’s the ideal gift for a numbers nerd

Samuelson: Here’s the ideal gift for a numbers nerd

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Robert Francis
Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

Robert Samuelson

WASHINGTON – The Stat Abstract is dead. Long live the Stat Abstract.

As regular readers of this column know, I’ve been a fanatical booster of the Statistical Abstract of the United States, which has collected the most complete and compact set of statistics about America that has ever existed and probably ever will. When the Census Bureau decided to end the Stat Abstract with the 2012 edition, I protested loudly – to no avail.

Although Census claimed that budget pressures forced it to shut the Abstract, the reality was that the savings were trivial, about $3 million a year, and the loss was incalculable. The Abstract’s great virtue is not that it includes so many numbers. Most of these figures can be found elsewhere. The Abstract’s great virtue is that, by putting them all in one place, it provides an instant tutorial on unfamiliar subjects.

Suppose in the current controversy over the killing of black men by police, you wanted to know the overall trends in homicides. You could find a table showing that annual homicides have dropped sharply, falling from 23,040 in 1980 to 14,610 in 2011. But the declines affected blacks less than whites, and the homicide rate for blacks, though dramatically lower than in 1980, is still more than six times higher than that for whites.

Fortunately, these quick comparisons are still possible. Though the government tried to eliminate it, the private sector rescued the Stat Abstract. My review copy arrived the other day, and it’s still a wellspring of information and insights.

Some advanced countries are facing population stagnation or declines, among them Japan, Germany and Italy. But not the United States. The projected American population in 2050 is almost 400 million, up from 316 million in 2013. Much of the increase will occur among Hispanics, whose population share is estimated to rise from about 18 percent now to 28 percent in 2050.

For all the money we spend on health care, we are getting some dividends. From 1960 to 2011, the death rate from heart disease has dropped 69 percent; the decline for cancer is 13 percent. But there’s a downside. The death rate from Alzheimer’s has soared 26-fold (albeit from a small base in 1981), in part because the lower death rates for these traditional killers mean that people live longer and become more vulnerable to brain diseases.

Here are some other intriguing facts that I gleaned from an hour flipping through the Abstract’s 1,416 tables:

• In 2011, Americans owned 74 million cats, 70 million dogs and 5 million horses. • In 2011, the base median pay of a player in the National Football League was $826,000. • From 1990 to 2008, the number of agnostics jumped from 1.2 million to 2 million. Meanwhile, the number of Jews dropped from 3.1 million to 2.7 million, the number of Muslims grew from 527,000 to 1.3 million, and the number of Buddhists climbed from 404,000 to 1.2 million. • In 2013, there were 273,846 reported cases of identity theft. • In 2011, there were 115 cruise ships serving the United States; they carried nearly 11 million passengers for voyages lasting, on average, about a week.

Of course, I’ve saved the bad news for last. Although the Stat Abstract is still available, it’s more expensive. It’s published in book form by Bernan Press and costs $179, which is steep for individuals though not for libraries, which are its main customers. The online version, sold by ProQuest, an information company, goes for $200 annually for small libraries and colleges, and up to $2,000 for large institutions. Typically, all students and faculty at a school or members of a library would have online access.

Robert Samuelson’s column is distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group.  

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