Monday, May 14, 2012

Republican anti-informationalism?

The Wall Street Journal had an editorial on Saturday about some unfortunate developments regarding the American Community Survey, which is undertaken by the U.S. Census Bureau. 
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.
Although the case against its constitutionality is weak, there's no doubt that the ACS is prying. As social scientist, I can appreciate the benefits of the ACS:
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.
On the other hand, the ACS would be uncontroversial if not for the fact that participation in the survey is required by law once you are selected. As stated on the ACS web site:
Do I have to answer these questions?
Yes. You are legally obligated to answer all the questions, as accurately as you can.
The relevant laws are Title 18 U.S.C Section 3571 and Section 3559, which amends Title 13 U.S.C. Section 221.
It seems to me that this government heavy-handedness is unnecessary and might even reduce the quality of the information that people provide. But even if quality of the data is enhanced by the legal requirement to participate, there is a very strong argument to be made that the enhancement is not worth it.  Other data sources are able to achieve a great deal of usefulness without threatening people with the force of the U.S. Department of Justice.