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Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Why does the government gather data?

I praise the U.S. government for its data collecting efforts - that along with building bridges and blowing up bridges. Government data collection in so many areas has definitely made the life of the the applied economist a lot easier. However, the more general question is why does the government collect data? Is it for public-good purposes, to advance knowledge, to monitor policies, or for some other reason?

Enter the "Motor Carrier Financial and Operating Statistics" program operated by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) of the Department of Transportation. From the program's web-site:
The program collects balance sheet and income statement data along with information on tonnage, mileage, employees, transportation equipment and other related items, but there are no explicit safety data items. The F&OS data are used by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), other government agencies, trucking associations, insurance companies, consultants, law firms, academia, trade publications, and others. Under 49 CFR 1420.10 unless otherwise provided by law, "the data contained in the report(s)...shall be made publicly available."

Good enough. It seems that the government was gathering data on freight and passenger carriers for public-good purposes. On April 8, 2005, the FMCSA announced, rather tersely, that the data-gathering program was being discontinued:
Information for Filers

This program has terminated and FMCSA has ceased the collection and dissemination of motor carrier financial and operating statistics.

Why? From what I have heard [and I don't have independent confirmation on this, yet] there were penalties for not filing the quarterly reports on a timely fashion but the penalties were never enforced. It was determined to discontinue the program rather than actually gather the data and/or enforce the penalties.

Making public the financial data for all carriers might make it more conducive to collude, but you get a sneaking suspicion that perhaps the data-gathering was really intended to be a money maker (albeit not a lot of money, but more than zero), and when that intention wasn't met, out goes the data. It is actually pretty interesting data (here's some more info.

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