Monday, February 09, 2009

Well, it's "change" at any rate...

What's this about the census?

As required by the Constitution, every ten years the federal government undertakes a massive effort to count and gather information about Americans. The information impacts hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions about federal funding and policy. But most importantly, it will be the basis for the redistricting which determines Congressional representation.

The White House has proposed that the director of the Census, a Commerce Department employee, report to the White House. The White House contends this is no big deal.

"No big deal": the decision about whether to perform an actual count or use a sampling method, for instance. Mmm-hmm.

On the topic of sampling methods, I'm sure we're all familiar with the Lancet's excess-deaths study from 2006, now quite thoroughly discredited. This is the result of improper application of statistics, and particularly agenda-driven improper application of statistics. There are situations wherein it's impossible to perform an actual count of something or someones; where that's true (and I believe it was indeed true in Iraq), those hoping for true answers ought to be especially cautious in their methods, since the factors that make a real count impossible can also contribute to out-of-whack sampling error (as in the Lancet study - and this is giving them a lot of benefit of the doubt, as it seems that the misstatements in that report are all in support of the principal author's personal views).

This is the census. The basis for allocation of Congress representation. Should it be contained in the White House? Would Bush have been applauded for making this move - or vilified (more)?


Anonymous said...

Accurate census data in high-density urban environments are notoriously difficult to obtain. This is well established.

The GOP fears that the population growth in urban centers might threaten their seats. The DNC knows that an accurate count will probably help them.

This is honest political gamesmanship, but it is by no means illegal.

The Republicans do it to, when it benefits them.

Jamie said...

Redistricting is indeed political gamesmanship and I'm not a fan of gerrymandering, in spite of the (pretty reasonable) argument that gerrymandering can improve representation of a voting bloc that, in a non-gerrymandered district, might not be properly represented. I don't support it because in our system, every group, every individual on the wrong side of an election is "underrepresented." I'm grossly underrepresented in my State. But that doesn't give me some penumbral right to be better grouped with the like-minded Republican women of Pennsylvania. (Together maybe we could start a book club.)

But what we're talking about here is, first, redefining "enumeration" as "statistical modelling." I don't argue that it's easy to collect census data in "high-density urban environments" - by which I assume you're encoding "single-ethnicity, non-white areas where a government worker is avoided like the plague." No doubt. Nevertheless, statistics are at the mercy of those using them, which brings us to the second thing I was blogging on: that the Census, the means by which Federal redistricting would be decided, would be directly supervised by the Executive, rather than only taking place under the umbrella of the Executive Branch and appearing as a budget subgroup therein.

Obama could have only the good of the nation in mind with this plan. I think he probably does (though I'd argue that his idea of "good" and mine are not too similar). But both the appearance of impropriety and the potential for abuse are very great. Not a terrific introduction to how we're going to be governed over the next four years.