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Column: The push to make government ignorant

The U.S. government is collecting more information on Americans than ever before. Yet somehow it is also leaving Americans far less informed about themselves and the country they live in.

In the past few years, federal statistical programs — you know, the ones that collect information openly through surveys, rather than secretly through wiretapping and malware — have been under attack. Budgets have been chopped and data series eliminated or at least made fuzzier, messier, less useful. The result is that, just when we need to better understand how the economy ticks and what we can do to help it tick a little faster, our measurement tools are breaking down.

To give but a few examples:

• The American Community Survey, which collects data on U.S. households, habits and jobs, is again threatened with being gutted or outright eliminated.

• The Economic Census, whose results get baked into tons of closely watched metrics, was released last week after a three-month delay caused by the sequester. That sounds like a relatively minor hiccup, but the delay degrades the quality of crucial information used to judge the economy's health.

• The Labor Department recently stopped publishing export price data. That's important if you want to know how much U.S. businesses sell abroad. It also curtailed a survey used to estimate job growth, thanks to congressional budget cuts.

Few will shed tears for "just another statistic." But as arcane as the cuts may sound, they're a huge deal.

Federally collected data — on population, prices, jobs, companies, earnings — are used to gauge how well the economy is functioning and whether policymakers are doing a good job.

Federal statistics are used not only to evaluate policy but to implement it as well. Tamper-resistant formulas have been gradually replacing pork-barrel haggling in smoke-filled rooms as a method for distributing federal funds. One of the key ingredients in those formulas is the American Community Survey. The annual survey costs just $234 million to administer but determines how $450 billion in federal funds is allocated for schools, housing, veterans' benefits and roads, among other things.

Entrepreneurs also use data such as the Economic Census to determine where to locate or how to make a good case for a bank loan.

"You hear about 'big data' all the time," Mark Doms, the Commerce Department's undersecretary for economic affairs, said in a pitch to journalists to pretty-please help make federal statistical collection sound sexier. "Commerce was really kind of 'big data' before 'big data' was cool."

So why are so many federal data programs on the chopping block?

To some extent, politicians may not care whether federal data collection falls victim to budget cuts. Perhaps they assume that the private sector will plug the holes, not realizing that many private data vendors are actually just reselling government data. ("A lot of our data is repackaged and we don't get much attribution for it, you know, which is fine," Doms says. "Our objective is: Our data get used.")

To some extent, politicians may want to preserve deniability about the sickliness of the economy. If there are no reliable data on poverty, the poverty rate can be whatever they claim it is.

Some politicians attack federal surveys for being too "invasive." Why, critics ask, does Big Brother need to know how many toilets I have? Maybe because, when the entire country takes a bathroom break during a Super Bowl commercial, local water utilities need to be able to handle the synchronized flushing. Likewise, why does the government need to know what time I leave for work? Maybe so city planners can design roadways that minimize traffic. These "intrusive" data are published, in aggregate form only, so governments can function better.

All the information the government collects in secret probably does little to cultivate trust in the collection that occurs more transparently. Likewise, security breaches at companies such as Target probably make Americans more skittish about handing over information to anyone at all.

Obama's 2015 budget restores some of the funds cut in recent years but also would give the statistical agencies expensive new mandates. There is, of course, no guarantee his budget requests will be met; last year they weren't.

If politicians are smart, they will invest more money in monitoring the economy. But sometimes they prefer to keep their heads in the sand.

© 2014 Washington Post

Column: The push to make government ignorant 03/28/14 [Last modified: Friday, March 28, 2014 5:28pm]

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