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The Tyranny of Numbers by Nicholas Eberstadt

- Abstract

In the late 1980′s, visitors to the Soviet Union noticed that milk was no longer reliably available in ordinary grocery stores. Meanwhile, back in Langley, Virginia, the Central Intelligence Agency was busy churning out elaborate quantitative assessments that showed Soviet economic growth to be proceeding at an impressive pace. According to the CIA, milk production was a particularly vibrant sector of the Soviet economy, the country’s per-capita output being some 40-percent higher than that of the United States.

To monitor and forecast Soviet economic trends, the CIA employed a small army of researchers and equipped them with an array of sophisticated computer programs. Altogether these analyses comprised, in Nicholas Eberstadt’s words, “probably the largest research project ever undertaken in the social sciences.” Yet according to Eberstadt, a demographer at the American Enterprise Institute and at Harvard’s Center for Population and Development Studies, the Agency’s study was skewed by a variety of factors, ranging from an overreliance on Soviet-supplied data to the CIA’s own organizational insularity; as a consequence, American policy-makers had a grossly distorted view of the Soviet economy on the very eve of the system’s demise.

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