Sources for statistical data

by Harry Browne
January 26, 2001

My recent article "It's still the economy, stupid!" prompted some readers to ask for the sources of the statistics I used.

In addition, it occurs to me that you might like to know where on the Internet you can get statistical information whenever you might want it. So this brief article will try to provide some pointers.

The figures given in my article were all taken from various issues of Economic Indicators, a monthly publication of the Joint Economic Committee of Congress. I've had a subscription to it for many years -- and so I have issues containing data going back into the 1950s.

The publication is now online. You can go directly to the Table of Contents at:

This is the most comprehensive summary I know of for monthly economic statistics. It includes tables on economic growth, national income, corporate profits, employment, wage rates, business activity, inflation, the money supply, interest rates, stock indices, the federal budget, and international trade. The tables show monthly, quarterly, and annual figures for recent years.

You're given a choice of seeing the tables in text format or Adobe Acrobat PDF format. For most people, text will be better. For one thing, it makes it possible to select material and copy it to the computer clipboard for use in a spreadsheet or elsewhere.

Unfortunately, online you can access only recent issues, starting with January 1998. And the typical table in an issue goes back only to 1990, with a few beginning at 1984. So older data aren't available there.

However, the Federal Reserve's website, which I'll come to in a moment, has longer-term data for some of the indicators.

The data on government "surpluses" and debt given in the article are in Economic Indicators on page 32. You can access them directly using the link:

(This is the November 2000 issue, which is the one I used for the article.)

The fictitious surpluses are shown in the third numeric column, while the actual debt is shown in the next to last column. (The disparity between the last two columns occurs because the "Gross Federal Debt" includes debt held by Social Security and the Federal Reserve System, which must be repaid at some point, and which incurs interest expense in the federal budget.)

Incidentally, I misspoke in the article when I said the first supposed surplus was for the fiscal year 1999. It actually was 1998, but the mistake didn't affect any point made in the article.

Federal welfare spending is on page 33 in the column "Income Security." You can go directly to that page with this link:

Growth rates for the economy are taken from the figures for Real Gross Domestic Product on page 2. You can go directly to that page with this link:

However, this table goes back only to 1990. My data goes back much further, and is taken from various government sources. Please understand, however, that all estimates of economic national activity are comparable to wild guesses.

The Federal Reserve's website has a great deal of data covering interest rates, currency prices, industrial activity, and the money supply. Some of these time series go back to the time of Moses. The Table of Contents is at:

Specifically, average monthly rates on T-bills (mentioned in my article), for example, are at:

These figures don't match exactly the ones in Economic Indicators and in my article, but they are close enough to make the same point.

For heavy-duty researchers, there are sources of long-term data. I'll mention two of them here.

A basic source of longer-term data is the annual Statistical Abstract of the United States, published yearly by the U.S. Census Bureau. It contains hundreds of tables going back 10-50 years.

The latest issue is the 1999 edition, which says is now out of print. The 2000 edition will be published on March 15, 2001, and Amazon is taking orders now (the price is $40).

The book is described at:
sim _books/104-6788558-8463166

A CD-ROM version of the 1999 issue is available for $25 from Amazon. (The 2000 edition probably won't be available until July 2001.) The CD-ROM version is superior to the hard copy in that it has continuous annual data going back several decades -- while the hard copy has gaps so that each table can fit on a single book page. The CD-ROM provides all the tables in spreadsheet format so that it's easy to use them in a spreadsheet program. The ordering details are at:

A valuable source of long-term data is the 2-volume book Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970. This was published by the Bureau of the Census in 1975, as a historical supplement to the yearly Statistical Abstracts. It contains hundreds and hundreds of statistical tables, some of them going back to the 18th century -- taking up over a thousand large book pages.

The set eventually went out of print, but I notice that Amazon now offers it for $79 for 4-6 week delivery. The web page showing it is at:

A new wrinkle is that this set is now available on CD-ROM for $210. I intend to buy a copy as soon as I get a job, as it will make it easy to work with the data. You can see the description at:

If you're familiar with other websites that have extensive economic data available, I'd appreciate knowing about them.