I love reference books. Especially those packed with data. I have been buying the annual World Almanac each year since 1959, and now keep several similar books close at hand. The two most important annuals I buy each year have recently been published, so this is a great time to get your new issues if you buy them every year like I do, or a great time to start this habit, which will significantly enhance your ability to understand the world and see the future.
I don’t know how people live – or at least think – without these books. How could anyone be well-informed, or even close, without having the latest data on trends in our society and the world near at hand? How could you hope to understand the future without at least considering the trends of the past through today? And, unfortunately, neither of these books will show up on the display tables of your local bookstore. I can think of no more important books which never see the light of mass distribution.
The first book, which has been out a few months, is the Statistical Abstract of the United States, published annually by the U.S. Government (Department of Commerce/Census Bureau), now in its 128th edition. This book contains about 800 pages of tables full of data about the United States, with some data on international comparisons. But where this book shines is in understanding American society and the American economy. How many people of each age are there? Which metropolitan areas are the largest? Was corn production up or down? Are people drinking more coffee or less? What has happened to average wages in recent years? Who pays most of the taxes? Are people making more or less use of airlines? Is crime rising or falling? How do these answers vary by state? There are few questions you can ask about America or its people that are not covered in this tome.
I still keep the World Almanac handy, with all its information about sports and miscellaneous other lists, but there is no competition for the Statistical Abstract when it comes to looking at American trends and data.
Legend has it that Robert Wood, the man who built Sears into the greatest retail chain on earth, kept a copy of the “Stat Ab” beside his bed, and read a table every night. He loved demographics, and as a result outsmarted his competitor (and former employer-who-would-not-listen-to-him) Montgomery Ward. Sears built new stores all over America after World War II while Ward’s came to a halt. I think this stupidity ultimately resulted in Ward’s bankruptcy about 40 years later.
I, like Wood, like to read the tables. But for this to work, each number must really come alive. When you see high death rates from AIDS, you need to picture the hospital wards. When you see corn production statistics, you need to picture the fields and workers. Each enrollment number should create a classroom image in your head. If you look at the data and only see numbers, you cannot really grasp the data and put it to use. Every number represents a person, a trade or exchange, or some form of human activity. This is the way that these tables come alive for me.
When I want to understand the bigger world we live in, I turn to my “Globalization Bible,” World Development Indicators 2009, just published by the World Bank and available from the Bank or from Amazon. Since this book shows comparative data on most of the world’s almost-200 nations, it cannot contain as many subject areas as the Statistical Abstract. But it covers more ground than any single affordable international reference book that I know of. And it is very current, as up to date as international databases will allow.
Before I visit – or do business with – any nation, I need to know the average income, how it compares with its neighbors, the life expectancy and infant mortality, the distribution of income (Gini coefficient), the growth rate of the economy, and perhaps other more specific data. So I always reach for the latest issue of World Development Indicators. Before any trip abroad, I spend at least a half hour reviewing the key data for the countries I will visit. That puts me way, way ahead of virtually everyone I meet, at least in terms of understanding the basic status of the nation, and how it compares within its region.
I am perpetually amazed at the number of people who, with no data or old data at hand, are more than ready (or think they are) to argue this political point or that policy matter, argue for such-and-such an economic policy, or recommend buying a stock based on business trends. So many arguments would be better settled, or at least informed, if people just knew the facts. And there is no better place to start, domestically and internationally, than to keep these two books close to hand, and to buy the new editions every year. If you want to understand the world today and envision the future, they are among the best investments you could possibly make.