Very little in this world better illustrates the fevered world of the Tea Party GOP than Rep. Daniel Webster’s (R-FL) assault on the Census Bureau, and specifically on the American Community Survey. Webster was joined by Nevada Representatives Heck (R-NV3) and Amodei (R-NV2). [May 9, roll call 232] In fact, the House Republicans passed an amendment to H.R. 5326 to prohibit funding for the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey because it’s “unconstitutional and intrusive.”
“This is a program that intrudes on people’s lives, just like the Environmental Protection Agency or the bank regulators,” said Daniel Webster, a first-term Republican congressman from Florida who sponsored the relevant legislation.”
“We’re spending $70 per person to fill this out. That’s just not cost effective,” he continued, “especially since in the end this is not a scientific survey. It’s a random survey.” [NYT]
There are both public and private sector reasons why this just might qualify as the Dumbest Vote of the Session.
Structurally Deficient: First, we might think that a Representative such as Webster with a degree in engineering may have taken enough math classes somewhere along the way to comprehend the structure of a random survey. We could also surmise that Representative Webster and his cohorts Amodei and Heck have utilized ‘random sample surveys’ during their political campaigns. A properly structured random sampling IS scientific.
Governmental Incomprehensibility: Secondly, the ACS is used to determine how approximately $400 billion in federal funding is distributed to states and local governments.
In FY2008, 184 federal domestic assistance programs used ACS-related datasets to help guide the distribution of $416 billion, 29 percent of all federal assistance. ACS-guided grants accounted for $389.2 billion, 69 percent of all federal grant funding.
Medicaid alone accounts for 63 percent of ACS-guided funding. In general, ACS-guided funding is highly concentrated in a small number of programs, recipients (states), departments, and budget functions.
The ACS facilitates the distribution of federal assistance largely by serving as the basis for six other federal datasets. Most important of these are the Bureau of Economic Analysis’ per capita income series and the Census Bureau’s population estimates. The ACS itself is directly used to guide the distribution of about a fifth of the $416 billion in assistance.
State per capita ACS-guided funding is positively related to income inequality (high annual pay, high poverty), Medicaid income limits, and the percent of the population that is rural. The higher any of these measures, the higher per capita funding tends to be. [Brookings]
Hey, here’s a way to eliminate Medicaid and other federal programs! Just make it impossible to calculate how the federal funds should be distributed… So how much funding should Nevada’s Medicaid program for those in poverty receive? Who would know? How many Nevada schools are eligible for funding to provide for at-risk students? Who would know? How should funding for law enforcement efforts at curtailing methamphetamine use be distributed? Who would know, because law enforcement agencies rely on datasets from the ACS to make predictive calculations.
And, if Representatives Webster, Heck, and Amodei had their way no one could find out how any of the medical care, education, or law enforcement funds should be allocated, including the people who were tasked with distributing them.
Knocking the props out from under the private sector: There are some private data firms that provide demographic information for advertising and marketing purposes, but none so far have the capacity — or perhaps the interest — in developing data which is national in scope and comprehensive in nature. Private data is expensive. There are also important instances in which private data collection is predicated on parameters established by government datasets. Where to locate a store? A factory? A Telemarketing office? These, and similar questions can be answered in no small part by information from the ACS. [Census]
Little wonder the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Retail Federation, and the National Association of Home Builders are “up in arms” over this House folly. [NYT]
The Chamber was opposed to the Lankford-Webster amendment because as their spokesperson said:
“The Chamber of Commerce, for example, strongly advocates funding them, since its members rely so much on the information they provide on basic things such as household spending, per capita income, and population estimates. The ACS is of particular value to them, says Martin Regalia, Commerce’s chief economist. “It is especially important to some of our bigger members for trying to understand geographic distinctions and other granularity in the economy.” [BusinessWeek]
Business economists weren’t thrilled with the deletion of funding for the ACS either:
” Tom Beers, executive director of the National Association of Business Economists, says that without good economic data, businesses would be “flying blind.” He adds: “You end up in a guessing game about what’s going on in the economy. The types of losses that result are far worse than what you end up spending to fund these surveys.” [BusinessWeek]
Economic Idiocy: We need economic information even when the news isn’t good — especially when the news isn’t good, as one data analysis CEO explained:
“Knowing what’s happening in our economy is so desperately important to keeping our economy functioning smoothly,” said Maurine Haver, the chief executive and founder of Haver Analytics, a data analysis company. “The reason the Great Recession did not become another Great Depression is because of the more current economic data we have today that we didn’t have in the 1930s.”
She added that having good data about the state of the economy was one of America’s primary competitive advantages. “The Chinese are probably watching all this with glee,” she said, noting that the Chinese government has also opted not to publish economic data on occasion, generally when the news wasn’t good.” [NYT]
There seems to be at least one point at which conservative think tanks like the Cato Institute and the AEI agree with their liberal counterparts — we can’t Fly Blind.
“… economists at conservative think tanks Cato Institute, American Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation all expressed support for the data-gathering agencies since all three rely heavily on the statistics they produce to study the economy. “Those agencies are essential,” says Phillip Swagel, an economist and nonresident scholar at AEI. “The data they provide really tell us what’s going on in the economy. This shouldn’t be a political issue.” [BusinessWeek]
It shouldn’t have been a political issue but it was. Worse still the arguments in favor of de-funding the American Community Survey were grounded in ideological fervor rather than on principles of rational economics and governance. Webster implored, “What really promotes business in this country is liberty,” he said, “not demand for information.” [NYT] Huh?
How is a business helped when it cannot get accurate data on the location of potential workers? On the best placement of a retail store based on the demographic trends in a given region? On the likelihood that particular areas have more growth potential than others? How is a business to know when and how to market its products or cater to the tastes of various demographic communities if there is no trustworthy data available? Extrapolating Webster’s assertion to its conclusion we’d have to conjecture that by his lights a business should be “free” to blunder about blindly as it tries to plan for its future.
But then, “There are none so blind as those who will not see.” Perhaps Representatives Heck and Amodei would care to explain to Nevada’s educational, law enforcement, medical, and business communities why they voted to de-fund the ACS? Representative Berkley (D-NV1) need make no such amends, she had the good sense to vote against the Willful Blindness Amendment.