Sunday, May 20, 2012

Comment: We need more and better data, not less

by Bill McBride on 5/20/2012 02:32:00 PM

The Depression led to an effort to enhance and expand data collection on employment, and I was hoping the housing bubble and bust would lead to a similar effort to collect better housing related data. From the BLS history:

[T]he growing crisis [the Depression], spurred action on improving employment statistics. In July [1930], Congress enacted a bill sponsored by Senator Wagner directing the Bureau to "collect, collate, report, and publish at least once each month full and complete statistics of the volume of and changes in employment." Additional appropriations were provided.
In the early stages of the Depression, policymakers were flying blind. But at least they recognized the need for better data, and took action. All business people know that when there is a problem, a key first step is to measure the problem. That is why I've been a strong supporter of trying to improve data collection on the number of households, vacant housing units, foreclosures and more.

But unfortunately some people want to eliminate a key source of data ...

From Matthew Philips at Businessweek: Killing the American Community Survey Blinds Business
On May 9 the House voted to kill the American Community Survey, which collects data on some 3 million households each year and is the largest survey next to the decennial census. The ACS—which has a long bipartisan history, including its funding in the mid-1990s and full implementation in 2005—provides data that help determine how more than $400 billion in federal and state funds are spent annually. Businesses also rely heavily on it to do such things as decide where to build new stores, hire new employees, and get valuable insights on consumer spending habits. Check out this video of Target (TGT) executives talking about how much they use ACS data.
From Catherine Rampell at the NY Times: The Beginning of the End of the Census?
“This is a program that intrudes on people’s lives, just like the Environmental Protection Agency or the bank regulators,” said Daniel Webster, a first-term Republican congressman from Florida who sponsored the relevant legislation.

“We’re spending $70 per person to fill this out. That’s just not cost effective,” he continued, “especially since in the end this is not a scientific survey. It’s a random survey.”

In fact, the randomness of the survey is precisely what makes the survey scientific, statistical experts say.
The good news is this vote is being criticized across the political spectrum ...

From the WSJ: 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.
...
Since the political class is attempting to define the GOP as insane and redefine "moderation" as anything President Obama favors, Republicans do themselves no favors by targeting a useful government purpose.
From the NY Times: Operating in the Dark
The Web site of Representative Daniel Webster, Republican of Florida, instructs visitors to click on a link for “Census data for the 8th district” to learn about the area’s economy, businesses, income, employment, homeownership and other important features. And yet, on Wednesday, Mr. Webster declared that the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey — the source for much of that data — is an unconstitutional breach of privacy.
From AEI's Norman Ornstein at Roll Call: Research Cuts Are Akin to Eating Seed Corn
significant was the House vote to eliminate the annual American Community Survey and the Economic Census to provide basic information on the state of businesses and industries in the country and data used for generating quarterly gross domestic product estimates.

If ever we need evidence of ideology run rampant, these actions become exhibit A. Learning about the population and about the economy are fundamental for a society to understand where it has been and where it is going ...
From the WaPo: The American Community Survey is a count worth keeping
Every year, the Census Bureau asks 3 million American households to answer questions on age, race, housing and health to produce timely information about localities, states and the country at large. This arrangement began as a bipartisan improvement on the decennial census. Yet last week the Republican-led House voted to kill the ACS. This is among the most shortsighted measures we have seen in this Congress, which is saying a lot.
And from Menzie Chinn at Econonbrowser: The War on Data Collection

Pretty sad. The only good news is this vote was condemned across the political spectrum.

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