Sunday, November 22, 2009

Forget the Phantoms, the Real Districts are Behind

Much attention was paid last week the errant phantom districts created by the federal administrators of the stimulus bill. Online policy watchers at have done a good job of counting the 30,000 jobs “created or saved” in 440 phantom districts created by coding errors.

Since then the top level information on the website has been changed so that districts are now compiled as “unassigned congressional district.” The errors remain in the downloadable data files.

The phantom districts don’t really matter, except that they undermine the data. These simple code errors reveal a lack of oversight. As Ed Pound, director of communications for the Recovery Accountability and Transparency board, told Watchdog, “Our job is data integrity, not data quality.”

It’s this lack of attention that allows for massive over-reporting from Georgia to Colorado, to name a few. These repeated errors cast doubt upon the entire dataset.

Most economists will tell you that Congressional district is a terrible breakdown for job analysis. The choice to mandate such reporting the stimulus bill was likely more to garner bragging rights about local job generation. While low in economic meaning, those numbers could be powerful talking points next November. Despite potential inflation, most districts have not made surprisingly large job gains.

When the stimulus bill was being debated, district by district job creation estimates were created based on a wider analysis by CEA Chairwoman Christina Romer and Jared Bernstein. Those estimates were for the full two years after passage and most districts are far from reaching the predicted levels. Yet 16 districts have already surpassed their two year creation expectations. Of the 16, 13 are represented by Democrats, most notably; California’s 5th district in Sacramento and represented by Representative Doris Matsui (D) has already produced 12 times as many jobs as predicted. Even without those outliers, Republican districts report on average 521 jobs compared to the average 679 reported in Democratic districts. Of course, it could be a phantom difference.

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