So The U.S. Might Copy A Canadian Bad Idea

Budget posturing continues within Washington, as various bills for the fiscal year 2013 budget are going through the unsanitary sausage-making that passes for legislating these days.  There are plenty of moves being made that have raised the ire of science and technology advocates, but given how badly the process went last year, with the negotiations, failures, and binding commitments that Congress is trying to get out of as we speak.  This drama is unlikely to be resolved for a few months, but in the absence of other things to obsess about, much attention is focused on the possible changes.

As usual, there’s a fair amount of nickel and diming to find new cuts.  Small agencies and small items are easier to target and cut than their bigger cousins.  One of those small cuts is the American Community Survey (ACS) conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau.  This is an annual survey distributed to 3 million residents – less than one percent of the population – to gather data on a breadth of demographic information.  Here’s the Census Bureau Director discussing the impact of losing the survey (as well as the 2012 Economic Census cancelled by the bill).

Readers might remember that the Canadian government did something similar a couple of years ago.  In that case it was making their long form voluntary, which is not administered yearly, but every five (it’s possible that a compromise on the ACS would be making it voluntary).  But in both cases the cuts have notable long-term effects.  There will be gaps in the data.  It’s a willful reduction in understanding.  We can’t be bothered to pay a little for a lot of useful knowledge.  Demographers compare it to steering blind:

“If there were no collection of such detailed information on the characteristics of neighborhoods and communities, Frey says it would be much more difficult to allocate the money needed to site and open schools, hospitals, police and fire stations, and many other services and amenities.

“‘We’re still going to have to make decisions about those different institutions, but we would make them with very little information, which means that a lot of money would be wasted,’” says Frey.”

It appears that like the Harper government, some in the U.S. House see the ACS as intruding on people’s privacy.  Census records are kept confidential for 72 years, and the Canadian Privacy Commissioner received all of three complaints, so some folks may just be sensitive.  But this information is not used just by the federal government, but state and local governments as well as businesses.

Big Aside – This is an unfortunate trend in many areas of policy – a seemingly willful ignorance of the flow(s) of information. Just because the government does (or doesn’t) collect the information doesn’t mean other parties can’t use information (or send what they collect to the government).

Back to the main topic -

While the House has managed for the second year in a row to advance some pretty dramatic budgetary proposals, they have not managed to get all that they want once a final budget emerges (late and messy, as always).  Do not write your Representatives, but your Senators, to remind them that an informed government stands a better chance at being a more efficient one.

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