Penny Wise and Pound Foolish

“Modern societies need current detailed social and economic statistics. The US is losing them”–Robert Groves, Director of the US Census Bureau on the House version of the appropriations bill.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Politics 101, Quick Takes, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Well I’m just shocked that the beuracrat in charge of collecting economic and social statistics says our society will completely collapse if we don’t spend more on collecting economic and social statistics.

  2. WR says:

    @Stormy Dragon: It’s not about “spending more.” It’s about idiot Republicans trying to defund the survey, apparently because it isn’t in the Bible or something.

  3. @WR:

    I don’t have a problem with funding the survey, but I do not think it should be mandatory to fill it out.

  4. David M says:

    @Stormy Dragon: I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest the mandatory nature of the survey is part of what makes it accurate.

  5. @David M:

    I’m sure many things would be more accurate if we were required to answer any and all questions posed by a government official. Yet the fourth and fifth ammendments recognize that we have a right not to do so, and I consider those rights more important than making sure no beuracratic curiousity goes unsatisfied.

  6. Gustopher says:

    Given how many statistics end up showing that Republican policies are terrible for the country, is it any wonder that Republicans now reflexively oppose gathering statistics?

  7. Tsar Nicholas says:

    @Stormy Dragon: A bureaucrat lamenting prospective cuts to his bureaucracy? Sacre bleu. Next thing you’ll tell me is that investment banks would prefer taxpayer bailouts rather than increases to their own borrowing costs. Oh, right.

    Regarding the survey, one way to phrase it is penny wise, pound foolish. The other way to phrase it, however, is to point out that a penny saved is a penny earned. More than a penny earned to be precise and technical. Besides, if we can’t agree to cut a federal demographic survey, despite the fact local governments have six different ways to fund replacements, and the likes of the Fortune 500 could fund replacements with funny money, how in the hell are we going to tackle such items as Social Security and Medicare?

  8. @Gustopher:

    So is that the nosy beuracrat equivalent of the Police Officer’s “if you’ve got nothing to hide, why won’t you let us in?”

  9. @Tsar Nicholas:

    The other way to phrase it, however, is to point out that a penny saved is a penny earned.

    Except, this not always the case. I could save a good number of pennies by not gassing up my car (gas is expensive, dontcha know). But, of course, since I can’t get to work without gas in my car I am soon going to be unable to pay the mortgage (among other things).

    In other words: saving money does not always lead to savings over the long term.

  10. Tsar Nicholas says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: That would be germane if you were comparing apples to apples, instead of apples to coconuts. Your gas bill is funded by your earnings. On the other hand, given the realities of a current account deficit, a budget deficit and a long-term, systemic budget deficit, Uncle Sam’s bills not only are funded by debt they’re funded by debt on top of debt on top of debt. Your gas bill doesn’t have debt service attached to it. Uncle Sam’s spending most certainly does. You need to drive to earn those earnings. Do we really need the federal government to take that survey? If County X is as sure as Robert Groves that such demographic info is necessary to avoid chaos then County X easily should be able to convince its denizens to support a bond measure funding a similar survey, shoudn’t they? Besides, as stated previously, if we can’t agree to cut a demographic survey how do you think we’ll be able to handle the entitlement time bomb not to mention the deficit and national debt at large?

  11. @Tsar Nicholas:

    Well, no.

    First, I am discussing a general proposition: a penny saved is not always a penny earned.

    Second. the video specifically notes the cutting of funding in the now that would save money in 2020.

    Third, without data it is impossible to assess policy success and failure. This is needed information that has the potential to save money.

  12. @Steven L. Taylor:

    Second. the video specifically notes the cutting of funding in the now that would save money in 2020.

    That didn’t come out correctly: I meant to note that the video states that the cuts now will prevent savings to the next census.

  13. grumpy realist says:

    Well, it looks like we’re slipping further towards 3rd world status.

    I would think that a bunch of conservatives would know the importance of gathering data. Go ahead and don’t answer. Slam your door. We’ll just give the survey to people who are more eager to carry out their civic duty and who understand the importance of contributing to the Commonwealth. Namely, liberals.

    So conservatives will be under-represented and liberals will be over-represented in the data used to determine future policies. And you’ll only have yourselves to blame for it. You don’t contribute, you don’t get a voice.

  14. @grumpy realist:

    Note, for example, one of the questions on the ACS is citizenship status. Please explain to me why it’s terrible for Arizona to go around demanding to know people’s citizenship status, but perfectly fine for the Federal government to do so?

  15. @Stormy Dragon:

    Likewise, if the government comes to my door demanding to know whether the man I live with is in a relationship with me or just a roommate, how is that terrible if Texas is the one demanding to know, but perfectly fine if it’s the Federal government.

  16. al-Ameda says:

    We’re at a point in the country where we contest everything, we cannot get anything done any more.

    Census Survey information is valuable for the reasons enumerated in Steven’s article, and it is useful in the assessment of the effectiveness of programs and public policy analysis. Is it a violation of privacy, i.e., can the information be used by the government in nefarious ways? Yes it can, but what are the probabilities for that? Is it a risk that is manageable? Of course.

    Everyday we use the Internet to transact business and search for information, and during that time we cede our privacy rights to a far greater degree than we do when we provide comprehensive Census Survey Data.

  17. @Stormy Dragon: Being stopped by the police because you are a tad too brown and asked to produce proof of citizenship is a tad different than filling out a confidential survey.

    Now, you may doubt that the claims and promises made, but these really are very different things.

    The AZ cop asking for your papers can arrest or deport you. The Census Bureau cannot.

  18. @al-Ameda:

    Is it a violation of privacy, i.e., can the information be used by the government in nefarious ways? Yes it can, but what are the probabilities for that?

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Now, you may doubt that the claims and promises made, but these really are very different things.

    Yes, I doubt because we know with certainty it’s a lie. We already know that the Census illegally turned over confidential data on Muslim American to the DHS in 2002.

  19. @Stormy Dragon: You have mentioned this twice–and I must confess to being unfamiliar. Could you provide a link? Thanks.

  20. @Steven L. Taylor:

    Or how about this NASA study on how to datamine census data using airline passenger records:

    This data set contains the responses from the 1990 decennial Census in the United States. The data has information on both households and individuals. We divided the responses into two tables, one that stores household records and another that stores person records, and treated each table as its own data set. Both the Household and Person data sets have a variety of geographic, economic, and demographic variables.

    Strange how they had access to a dataset the Census assures us doesn’t exist.

  21. @Stormy Dragon: Thanks–that helps. Still, I am not sure this quite rises to the level of outrage that you are making it out to be. That’s not to say that I like it (it fits an unfortunate pattern of post-911 activity that I find worrisome, to be sure). This is still a far cry from the individual targeting that you are comparing it to above.

  22. @Stormy Dragon:

    From the NASA study:

    In the person data set one of the most extreme outliers was a 90+ year old Black Male with Italian ancestry who does not speak English, was enrolled in school3, has a Doctorate degree, is employed as a baker, reported 110K income of which 40K was from wages, 20K from business, 10K from farm, 15K from welfare, and 20K from investments, has a disability which limits but does not prevent work, was a veteran of the U.S. armed forces, takes public transportation (ferry boat) to work, and immigrated to the U.S. 11-15 years ago but moved into his current dwelling 21-30 years ago. Clearly, there are inconsistencies in this record and we believe that this record represents an improperly completed form.

    A second outlier was a 46 year old, White, widowed female living with 9 family members, two of which are her own children. She has a disability that limits but does not prevent her work as a bookkeeper or accounting clerk in the theater and motion picture industry. She takes public transportation to work (bus or trolley) and it takes her longer than 99 minutes to go from home to work.

    A third outlier was a 19 year old, White, female with Asian ancestry and Mexican Hispanic origin with a disability that limits but does not prevent work. She earned 123K in business income, and 38K in retirement income (which may include payments for disabilities), and is also enrolled in school.

    Oh yeah, absolutely no reason to be concerned they might be using census data at all.

  23. @Stormy Dragon: You are going to have to help me out here: the ability to identify outliers (or, more likely, people who filled out the forms whimsically) without attachment to names is a threat in what way?

  24. @Steven L. Taylor:

    1. The Census is giving out datasets containing individual level data records to other federal agencies despite repeated assurances that they only provide statistically aggregate data.

    2. The government is actively researching systems for rating how “unusual” specific individuals are based on their census responses, and speficially in the context of determining who deserves to be subject to a higher level of law enforcement scrutiny.

    Even if the research system lacked the personally identifying information, do you really believe it’s going to stay that way if the research pans out?

  25. @Steven L. Taylor:

    Oh, and keep in mind that {Birth Date, Gender, Zip Code} alone is sufficient information to uniquely identify 87% of the people in this country:

    So the Census can hand over “anonymous data” to DHS and claim they’re in compliance with the law, and then DHS can put the identities right back in by matching the data up with another source.

  26. grumpy realist says:

    @Stormy Dragon: if you want to worry about the possibilities of data-mining, I’d worry a heck of a lot more what private businesses are doing with it.

  27. jukeboxgrad says:

    This needs to be seen in a broader context. The GOP is against information and knowledge, of all kinds. It’s no accident that two of their favorite institutions to bash are academia and the press. Helping masses of people to think more and know more is not desirable if you’re a plutocrat. Two institutions they worship are religion and the military. Those are both about authority and obedience. When you’re an authoritarian, knowledge is bad, obedience is good.

    This is related to something Norm said yesterday, in a high-rated comment:

    the entirety of current Republican dogma is based on lies, distortion, and mis-information. This is not hyperbole. It is demonstrable fact.

    And it’s also related to this:

    The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

    And it’s also related to this:

    It’s almost like an Etch a Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again

    Facts don’t matter. The truth doesn’t matter. Why do a census? Whatever facts we need we can just manufacture.

  28. @grumpy realist:

    No matter how much data Walmart collects, it’s not going to result in the Walmart SWAT team busting into someone’s home in the middle of the night because the Walmart star chamber has deemed them to be vaguely suspicious.