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FORECASTERS DON'T NEED VISION, JUST DATA

You hear the figures being quoted by financial reporters. The economy is up - it's down - and the big turnaround will be on Babe Ruth's birthday. Where do the forecasts come from?

They are released by government economists like Jim Warner.Warner works in a small windowless room on the third floor of the U.S. Bureau of Highs and Lows. He has been there for 20 years and has never seen the sun.

When I went to visit him, he was bent over his desk studying what appeared to be a printout.

"Warner," I said, "when will the recession be over?"

He blinked his eyes, "The recession IS over."

"Are you crazy? Have you been out in the street? Every other store has its windows covered with white paint, and there are Space For Rent signs all over the place. Go out and see with your own eyes.' "

"I never leave the office," Warner replied. "We economists believe that what you don't see can't hurt you."

"If you won't look, how do you know whether there is a recession or not?"

"I pore over these printouts. A bottom line never lies."

"Today I read that 100,000 more people were laid off in the manufacturing arm of American industry. Doesn't that tell you something?"

"It wasn't in my computer," Warner said. "People have a strange idea of how economists work. We are in the business of collating numbers. The more numbers we collate, the more accurate are our predictions. Now you may see empty shops, or maybe your son can't get a job, or perhaps you are unable to get a loan from the bank. So you think there is a recession.' "

"What would you call it?"

"It's a slight misfortune, but it isn't a recession. The only device that can recognize whether it's a recession or not is this high-tech laser printer, which can spit out 14 data sheets of bad news a minute."

"If the recession is over, why doesn't it show up in profits?"

"It takes time to pick up after a recession is finished - maybe two or three years. My job isn't to forecast the exact shape of the recovery."

"Whose job is that?" I asked Warner.

"Donna Hickman's, but she was laid off by Richard Darman in the OMB Monday Night Massacre. I hear it was a terrible blood bath, but I didn't see it because I have no windows."

"Why don't you come out with me for lunch and look at what's going on?"

"I can't do that. I might see something that could affect my economic game plan. I am only interested in the evidence that's forwarded to me by all the other U.S. agencies."

"I'm happy that you're certain the recession has bottomed out," I told Warner.

"If I wasn't, the administration would find somebody who was."