Saturday, May 12, 2012

Load, aim, fire ... at own foot (or other body part)

Here are excerpts from an editorial in today's WSJ on an asinine proposal in Congress to de-fund the annual American Community Survey.  It speaks for itself.
The GOP's Census Takers ... Republicans try to kill data collection that helps economic growth ...
The House voted 232 to 190 to abolish the Census's American Community Survey, or ACS, which is the new version of the long-form questionnaire and is conducted annually. Republicans claim the long form—asking about everything from demographics to income to commuting times—is prying into private life and is unconstitutional.
In fact, the ACS provides some of the most accurate, objective and granular data about the economy and the American people, in something approaching real time. Ideally, Congress would use the information to make good decisions. Or economists and social scientists draw on the resource to offer better suggestions. Businesses also depend on the ACS's county-by-county statistics to inform investment and hiring decisions. As the great Peter Drucker had it, you can't manage or change what you don't measure.
The ACS costs about $2.4 billion a decade, which is trivial compared with the growth it helps drive. National statistics are in some sense public goods, which is why the government has other data-gathering shops like the Bureaus of Economic Analysis and Labor Statistics. The House action is like blaming the bathroom scale for your recent weight gain. 
Florida freshman Daniel Webster denounced the ACS as "the definition of the breach of personal privacy, the picture of what's wrong in Washington D.C., unconstitutional." This diminishes all the other things the government does that really are unlawful, especially since the Founders told Congress to enumerate the population "in such Manner as they shall by Law direct." As for privacy, anyone not living in a Unabomber shack won't be much inconvenienced by making this civic contribution. ...
This is pretty good, but I have some additional thoughts. To avoid purely political arguments over the division of labor between private and public sector efforts, as well as worries over which level of government performs which public function, think in terms of comparative advantage.  The ACS is something that the Census Bureau does best.  No one else can come close.  But should it be done in the first place?  The data have widespread uses and applications.  Finally, it is easy to agree with the idea that "basic" research is a government function.  Many (not all) ACS users are social scientists engaged in what we can call basic research.  To take a familiar example, Charles Murray's Coming Apart is (in my view) profound, appeals across the political spectrum, is widely read, and would not exist if the author did not have access to Census Bureau data.