Our neighbors in Alabama had a rude awakening recently when the state actually started counting high school graduates.
You see, up to now, the state had boasted a roughly 87 percent graduation rate -- based on a formula that simply guesstimated the number of graduates.
Now, education officials in Alabama have begun tracking students to get a far more accurate estimate. And the numbers aren't pretty.
Instead of the vaunted 87 percent graduation rate, the state says the true rate is only about 72 percent.
"This is where we will be starting," Assistant State Superintendent Melinda Maddox soberly declared of the new numbers.
There's no sense tut-tutting about those disillusioned Alabamans, though.
Just remember the Obama administration's jolly estimate of 3.5 million jobs that the $862 billion federal stimulus -- paid for by current and future residents of Alabama and every other state -- would "create or save."
That was based in large part on federal formulas that merely projected how many jobs ought to be created. A particular amount of government cash was supposed to create a certain number of jobs. Adding to the confusion, many organizations engaged in what appeared to be brazen guesswork or outright job inflation, and Washington didn't particularly seem to mind.
The trouble is, when dozens of news organizations around the country actually began looking at jobs figures -- not lofty projections -- countless stimulus-funded projects were found badly wanting when it came to boosting or preserving employment.
One of the many examples: A Head Start program in LaGrange, Ga., reported 77 jobs created or saved by the stimulus. How did it reach that happy figure? It based it on stimulus-subsidized raises that it had provided to existing employees.
Jobs "created or saved"?
Nah. Just federal tax dollars pitched into a black hole.
Later, Washington changed how it required stimulus-related jobs to be counted, relaxing the standards even further.
"The federal Office of Management and Budget previously told recipients of the stimulus dollars to count only jobs that were created and filled as a result of stimulus spending or existing jobs 'that would not have been continued' if not for the spending," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported at the time. "Now all jobs funded with stimulus dollars will be counted as created or saved, whether or not they were in jeopardy of being eliminated ... ."
That was reported in 2010, about a year after the stimulus passed Congress with almost exclusively Democratic backing. Yet even today, no satisfactory accounting has been given for where all the stimulus money went, nor for how many jobs it really generated.
The take-home message, whether the issue is grossly inflated graduation rates or wildly exaggerated jobs figures, is that where government numbers are concerned, it's better to use a calculator than a crystal ball.