The Republican War on Data

Updated
 
Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.)
Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.)
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The politics of paranoia can lead policymakers into some unfortunate directions. On everything from homeland security to education to guns, paranoid politicians invariably end up pushing some truly bizarre proposals for no good reason.

In the latest example, some far-right congressional Republicans have decided to wage a war on census data because they have paranoid ideas about “big government.”

A group of Republicans are cooking up legislation that could give President Barack Obama an unintentional assist with disagreeable unemployment numbers – by eliminating the key economic statistic altogether.

The bill, introduced last week by Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), would bar the U.S. Census Bureau from conducting nearly all surveys except for a decennial population count. Such a step that would end the government’s ability to provide reliable estimates of the employment rate. Indeed, the government would not be able to produce any of the major economic indices that move markets every month, said multiple statistics experts, who were aghast at the proposal.

“They simply wouldn’t exist. We won’t have an unemployment rate,” said Ken Prewitt, the former director of the U.S. Census who is now a professor of public affairs at Columbia University.

The core issue is something called the American Community Survey, which the Census Bureau uses as a supplemental to the decennial reports, providing information on commuting, income, family structure, educational attainment, housing, and finance. The results are used extensively by businesses, researchers, academics, and government agencies, and have been an invaluable tool for decades.

Right-wing lawmakers, however, have come to believe nefarious government officials are collecting the information as part of a larger scheme – it’s never been entirely clear to me what they see as the point of the plot – that must be stopped. Sen. Rand Paul (K-Ky.), who revels in strange conspiracy theories, proposed legislation in March to make elements of the American Community Survey optional, apparently because he didn’t realize that they were already optional.

But it’s not just the American Community Survey that congressional Republicans are eager to crush.

Indeed, Rep. Jeff Duncan’s (R-S.C.) bizarre proposal, which has 10 co-sponsors, would also explicitly eliminate the agricultural census, economic census, government census, and mid-decade census.

As a consequence, Duncan’s bill would eliminate the existence of the unemployment rate and the measurement of the nation’s GDP, among other thing.

Maurine Haver, founder of business research firm Haver Analytics and a past president of the National Association for Business Economics, told the Huffington Post’s Michael McAuliff, “Do they understand that these data that the Census Bureau collects are fundamental to everything else that’s done? They think the country doesn’t need to know how many people are unemployed, either?”

The answers to these questions are unclear – Duncan and other supporters of this proposal have not explained why they oppose the data, why they see the need to eliminate the data, or even if they understand what it is they’re doing.

Duncan, incidentally, is the same deeply confused congressman who spewed bizarre conspiracy theories about the Boston Marathon bombing, going so far that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano felt the need to say Duncan’s ignorant inquiries were “full of misstatements and misapprehensions,” and “not worthy of an answer.”

Census, Conspiracy Theories and Jeff Duncan

The Republican War on Data

Updated