Republican Bill Could Eliminate Most Economic Statistics

A new GOP would make it very difficult to get a good read on the state of the nation's economy.

Economy Heartbeat

A new bill meant to target what some on the right consider “intrusive” Census surveys could have the effect of making it impossible for the Federal Government from gathering the data behind most of the well-known economic statistics:

WASHINGTON — A group of Republicans are cooking up legislation that could give President Barack Obama an unintentional assist with disagreeable unemployment numbers — by eliminating the key economic statistic altogether.

The bill, introduced last week by Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), would bar the U.S. Census Bureau from conducting nearly all surveys except for a decennial population count. Such a step that would end the government’s ability to provide reliable estimates of the employment rate. Indeed, the government would not be able to produce any of the major economic indices that move markets every month, said multiple statistics experts, who were aghast at the proposal.

“They simply wouldn’t exist. We won’t have an unemployment rate,” said Ken Prewitt, the former director of the U.S. Census who is now a professor of public affairs at Columbia University.

“I don’t know how the market reacts if there is suddenly no unemployment rate at the start of the month,” Prewitt said. “How does the market react if we don’t have a GDP [gross domestic product]?”

“Do they understand that these data that the Census Bureau collects are fundamental to everything else that’s done?” asked Maurine Haver, founder of business research firm Haver Analytics and a past president of the National Association for Business Economics. “They think the country doesn’t need to know how many people are unemployed, either?”

A spokesman for Duncan declined to explain why the congressman wants to eliminate such data or even whether he understands that the data would be compromised by his bill, which has 10 co-sponsors.

But the proposed Census Reform Act is explicit in its intent to end nearly every survey the Census conducts, mandating the “repeal” of the nation’s agricultural census, economic census, government census and mid-decade census. It would also bar the bureau from carrying out the American Community Survey (ACS), which the House voted last year to end, although the Senate let that measure die.

Dylan Matthews explains some of the consequences that could develop if this bill actually became law:

It’s hard to overstate the loss of knowledge that this bill would bring about. We wouldn’t know the unemployment rate or how many people are working. We wouldn’t know how many people are in the workforce, or enrolled in school, or retired. We wouldn’t know how much people are earning, or how many are in poverty. We wouldn’t know how many people are robbed or assaulted each year.

This has a concrete impact on government spending. Andrew Reamer, a Census expert, estimated in a paper for the Brookings Institution that $416 billion in federal spending rides on the American Community Survey alone. Almost two-thirds of that is Medicaid spending, which is distributed to states based on per capita income figures computed from the ACS. But tens of billions of dollars in highway money, Section 8 housing grants and special education funding rides on the ACS too. It’s unclear how that $416 billion could be spent absent the data the ACS provides, and which Duncan seeks to ban.

What this is really all about isn’t the GDP and unemployment reports, of course, but the American Community Survey, and ongoing statistical survey of American households that his sent to a representative sample of households on a monthly basis. It measures a wide variety of demographic statistics for the stated purpose of assisting the Federal Government, along with state and local governments, in allocating resources. Like the decennial Census, it is mandatory in that someone who receives the survey and doesn’t respond to it, they could be subject to a fine, although I honestly can’t say that it’s likely worthwhile for Federal Authorities to actually pursue one of those types of cases. Many on the right view the ACS, and indeed anything in the decennial Census beyond identifying how many people live at a given location, to be overly intrusive and it’s been the subject of attacks like this in the past. Mostly recently, last year when the House passed a bill to eliminate it that died in the Senate. Which is precisely what will happen to this bill if it gets that far.

What’s not understandable is why Duncan would write legislation that is so broad that it wouldn’t just attack the ACS but also a wide variety of government statistics that government at all levels, academics, and private industry rely upon. What is the value of not having this information? I just don’t get it.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Economics and Business, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.

Comments

  1. Gromitt Gunn says:

    It is simple. The post-2000 GOP hates data-driven science and analysis, becuase it has a tendency to contradict their “common sense” pronouncements. Even the “Money!” wing of the party that *should* want good economic data hates data that puts the lie to climate change denialism, income inequality statistics, etc.

  2. PJ says:

    As we all know, truth and reality both have a liberal bias, so what do conservatives do? Make sure that the truth and reality can’t be reported.

    This is nothing new.

    Minorities are voting for Democrats, so what do conservatives do? Make sure that minorities can’t vote at all.

    And so on.

  3. @Gromitt Gunn:

    I think the census should be allowed to conduct the surveys, but that participation should be voluntary. I don’t see how requiring someone to answer any question the government feels like asking them is compatible with the fourth and fifth amendments.

  4. john personna says:

    The “when you don’t need facts” jokes are too obvious to even write, and too sad.

  5. stonetools says:

    Consevative abhorrence of data and data-driven anallysis is well known.They always prefer “truthiness” to “truth.”
    This is of a piece with the NRA getting Congress to pass a “gag rule” forbidding the CDC to research gun violence. The NRA far prefers the debate on guns to be guided by pithy pronuncements about homeowners “defending” their homes .
    Conservatives similarly haven’t done well with their economic arguments. Their conclusions have been consistently refuted by the data. Solution? Don’t change your minds. Just get et rid of the data.

  6. Woody says:

    I hardly need remind OTBers about the predilection of the GOP to eliminate statistics that threaten hard right theology.

    I don’t for one second believe this is due to a hard right suspicion of non-Census data gathering. This is the Commodore Vanderbilt party after all. Any time a statistic can threaten a cherished belief (as in gun statistics from public health records), there is a well-lubricated scheme to remove the statistic from existence.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    The BEA is doing a pretty good job of making its statistics unusable even without Congressional help. When they’ve finished their “recalculate GDP” project, everything ever written that refers to GDP will need to be amended. Full employment program for economists, I guess.

  8. grumpy realist says:

    If this passes, start learning Chinese, boys, because we will truely and completely be going down the drain.

    Since when did Republicans start wanting to act like the Soviets when it comes to actual economic data?

    This is exactly like a government pretending that there isn’t an epidemic by simply not reporting the deaths.

  9. Tony higgins says:

    80-90% of Americans support background checks for all gun purchases. This kind of statistics is exactly what extremists in the republican would like to suppress. However this bill will go nowhere. It’s just red meat for the tea party and a distraction to everyone else.

  10. john personna says:

    @stonetools:

    I recall some defunding of climate satellites … so sure of their answer they didn’t need to check.

  11. Dave says:

    I just completed my year of extra census data. It entailed one in home meeting, where the census taker was not only was amazed I had read the letter sent telling me of my involvement, but shocked I was willing to participate. Then once a month for 6 months they call and ask questions about employment, salary and a various spending report i.e how much spent on groceries in the last month. Then you get 4 months off and then two months of phone calls again and you’re done. It does get a bit frustrating that it is a year and if you miss the phone call they will call back all too frequently until you answer. I agree that maybe people should be able to opt out of this, but that would make it harder for the census people to compile enough good data, which may lead to more government employees which the right hates more. The most surprising thing to me was that your random selection is based on address. Had I moved before the year was up the sucker who moved in after me would’ve had to deal with it.

  12. walt moffett says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    Also, full employment for pollsters.

  13. @Dave:

    agree that maybe people should be able to opt out of this, but that would make it harder for the census people to compile enough good data, which may lead to more government employees which the right hates more.

    When NYPD’s stop and frisk is (hopefully) declared unconstitutional, it will make it harder for the police to justify searching people they find “suspicious”. Likewise it’s harder for police to investigate somce crimes because they’re not free to search anyone’s home or cars because they want to. We have the fourth and fifth ammendment because we value people’s right to privacy even if it makes things inconvenient for the government at times.

    Is there no data the government cannot force you to provide as long as statistician somewhere would find it useful to know? Could they force you to wear a GPS tracker because they want to study transportation patterns? Can abortion providers be required to give up lists of all their clients is the government wants to study the demographics of the people getting abortions?

  14. Barry says:

    An antebellum SC politician once said of his state, ‘South Carolina is too small to be a country, but too large to be an insane asylum’. Despite the best efforts of some other states (*coughTexas* *coughAlabama*), SC is still leading the way, over 150 years later.

  15. Dave says:

    @Stormy Dragon: It is self reporting to a survey. If you don’t want to give correct information you don’t need to.That said you are legally required to fill out your census forms. Under that argument telling the government how many hours you’ve worked the last month is just as much of a violation of your rights as telling them the number of occupants in a household? I hardly see the slippery slope of gather employment data of citizens to illegally searching people on the streets or forcing doctors to violate HIPAA. I could see them asking you about your commuting but it isn’t as if the subpoenaed my bank records, and made me wear a tracking anklet so they could verify I was at work when I said I was. The jump from being obligated to answer a short survey to illegal search and seizure is quite large.

  16. @Dave:

    If you don’t want to give correct information you don’t need to.

    Not suprisingly, the Census seems to disagree with you:

    According to Title 13, Section 221 (Census, Refusal or neglect to answer questions; false answers) of the United States Code, persons who fail or refuse to respond to the mail-back census form, or refuse to respond to a follow-up census taker can be fined up to $100. Persons who knowingly provide false information to the census can be fined up to $500.

  17. john personna says:

    Fun and related, Felix Salmon writes on:

    The systemic plight of labor

    Related because it is chock full o’ data, fun because it has snark:

    Friedman is a billionaire (by marriage) who — like all billionaires these days — is convinced that he achieved his current prominent position by merit alone, rather than through luck and through the diligent application of cultural and financial capital. His paean to self-motivation recalls nothing so much as Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as society” quote: “parenting, teaching or leadership that ‘inspires’ individuals to act on their own will be the most valued of all,” he writes, bizarrely choosing to wrap his scare quotes around the word “inspires” rather than around the word “leadership”, where they belong.

  18. rudderpedals says:

    Is the census providing big business with better info than it can get data mining? If not then it doesn’t matter if it’s useful because congress will terminate it not for any hifalutin constitutional reason but because an incumbent prefers an unfree market and understands it makes competitive sense to lobby to deny the data to others while raising a barrier to entry. Cui bono?

  19. john personna says:

    Hmm, an interesting development in this FOMC Statement (calculated risk):

    Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in March suggests that economic activity has been expanding at a moderate pace. Labor market conditions have shown some improvement in recent months, on balance, but the unemployment rate remains elevated. Household spending and business fixed investment advanced, and the housing sector has strengthened further, but fiscal policy is restraining economic growth. Inflation has been running somewhat below the Committee’s longer-run objective, apart from temporary variations that largely reflect fluctuations in energy prices. Longer-term inflation expectations have remained stable.

    Apparently “fiscal policy is restraining economic growth” are new words not used in previous releases.

  20. john personna says:

    @rudderpedals:

    Business has their own “big data” these days.

  21. Latino_in_Boston says:

    If there was ever a piece of evidence that should automatically eliminate a party in the mind of voters is a refusal to follow empirics and gather data to make better decisions. The GOP has been going down this path for a long time (Evolution, Climate Change), but lately it used to be concentrated on the fringes. Now it’s taking over the whole party. Just in the last year, most of their major policy initiatives seem to be based on right-wing blog conspiracy theories (Benghazi, Ammunition Accumulation) and they have made it harder for the NSF to fund political science, not to mention that people like Cruz wants to take an ax to the entirety of the NSF structure.

    I suppose that the Left was somewhat like this in the 60s and the 70s, but even at its worst, it didn’t have enough power to seriously threaten the system. There’s never been anything like the current GOP in American history, and I fear it will get worse.

  22. mantis says:

    It’s almost an Onion article: “Republicans ban measurement.”

  23. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @mantis: Or a bumper sticker-

    “Today’s GOP: Better Government through Ignorance”

  24. stonetools says:

    I truly despair for the republic that the current Republican Party is as strong as it is. How the hell are these gang of bigots, crackpots, and hucksters in charge of the US House, a blocking minority in the Senate and the majority of the governorships and state legislatures? OK, I know how-the “failure” of the stimulus program to check the unemployment surge following the 2008 crisis. But it still is amazing that these guys aren’t a discredited rump party with no power to block the the government from governing.

  25. Mike Pacher says:

    I guess the consensus here is that if the government does not gather these statistics, then there will be no economic statistics. Business leaders will just be wandering around blind and bumping into stuff, driving their businesses into ruin. Legions of economists and commentators will sit around chewing their fingernails with nothing to do. Government will be able to predict nothing and head off disasters like it never did before. Government will not know how much money to give out anymore and will have to hand out even more money to be certain they have the situation covered. Yes, those republicans are going to make us all helpless. It will be like flying a 747 with no gauges. We are goners for sure.

  26. C. Clavin says:

    Not qall Republicans want less knowledge….but if you want less knowledge…chances are you’re a Republican.

  27. grumpy realist says:

    @Mike Pacher: Well, the idea is that government is the entity most likely to be disinterested in the fact gathering. You ask anyone else to do the fact gathering, particularly a group that has an axe to grind, and how do you know that you will end up with accurate statistics?

    Unless you believe that push-polls are accurate. In which case I understand why you are surprised–you must have believed that Mitt Romney was going to win by a landslide.

  28. @grumpy realist:

    Well, the idea is that government is the entity most likely to be disinterested in the fact gathering.

    Only a great fool would think the government is disinterested in how the economics statistics come out. If accurate statistics depend on the collector being disinterested, then there is no such thing as accurate statistics.

  29. mantis says:

    @Mike Pacher:

    I guess the consensus here is that if the government does not gather these statistics, then there will be no economic statistics.

    Keep guessing.

    Business leaders will just be wandering around blind and bumping into stuff, driving their businesses into ruin.

    Market research and large-scale economic statistics gathering are two completely different things.

    Legions of economists and commentators will sit around chewing their fingernails with nothing to do.

    Well, they certainly won’t have much of the data they current rely on to do their jobs, that’s for sure.

    Government will not know how much money to give out anymore and will have to hand out even more money to be certain they have the situation covered.

    Yeah, I don’t think that’s what will happen.

    Yes, those republicans are going to make us all helpless.

    No, but they sure would like to make us as ignorant as possible. I take your sarcastic comment to mean you agree with them. Good luck with that.

  30. john personna says:

    @Mike Pacher:

    I can give you a much shorter answer: Should the Fed fly blind?

  31. stonetools says:

    @john personna:

    Well, his answer would probably be that there should be no Fed. There, problem solved.

  32. john personna says:

    @stonetools:

    Yeah, I knew I was putting a crazy-test in there.

  33. al-Ameda says:

    Republicans are almost a parody of themselves now, and that’s almost funny – except for the fact that they’re taking this country down. Republicans are the crazy train.