Sorry, Come Back Later (Make an Educated Guess in the Meantime)

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

Last April, I had a brilliant idea: “Let’s stop collecting any information.” Okay, it wasn’t an original idea, I quickly admitted; I pilfered it from a lawmaker who introduced a bill to nix all Census Bureau surveys, save a bare-bones decennial population count.

Census fans were incredulous. That April 23 blog post had record readership; even Stephen Colbert lampooned the bill, and a synopsis of the show quoted my blog. One of my tongue-in-cheek comments — “Cool! Then we might not need congressmen, because just about all of them rely on Census Bureau data to justify their existence.” — apparently struck a chord, judging from reprints in the press.

So far, only 15 colleagues have joined Rep. Jeff Duncan’s (R-SC) quest for an information void. Odds are H.R. 1638 won’t be seeing the legislative light of day any time soon. But do not despair, data-phobes! Congress has managed, through nonfeasance, to accomplish what a teensy fraction of the people’s house cannot on its own.

Thanks to the government shutdown, the Census Bureau’s work has come to a grinding halt. No harassing phone calls to unwitting, over-burdened citizens. No pesky, door-knocking surveyors invading the privacy of hard-working Americans who just want to live a quiet, government-free life (as soon as someone fills that pothole down the street). Even the duty-bound who want to cooperate (however grudgingly) from the comfort of their own computers are out of luck; online survey response is closed for business.

Not only is the populace finally free from the burden of government surveys, it’s relieved of the responsibility of having to consider objective, reliable information at all. The Census Bureau’s website is completely shut down. I’m thinking this is sort of a trial run for H.R. 1638, or maybe for last year’s mystifying House vote to eliminate the American Community Survey. No surveys and censuses, no data. No data, no need for thoughtful analysis of society’s challenges and informed consideration of solutions. We’ll just resort to rhetorical talking points and ideological pronouncements. Wait, wait… something is ringing a bell here…

It’s not just the Census Bureau that has shuttered the windows, of course. No one seems to be manning the websites at most other federal statistical agencies. (Furloughed Bureau of Economic Analysis employees, who are responsible for factoids like the Gross Domestic Product, “sincerely regret the inconvenience.” The GDP must not be very consequential, though, because H.R. 1638 would ax one of the main data sources for this indicator — the Economic Census.)

Not that I’m looking for a silver lining in the mess of the standoff on Capitol Hill, but the media took note of the data vacuum when the monthly unemployment and labor force figures, scheduled for release last Friday, went AWOL. Did we make any progress in job creation in September? Which sectors are hiring and which ones are shedding workers? Legislators usually have their press releases drafted in advance of the monthly first-Friday statistical release, waiting to put their respective spins on the numbers. I wonder how many ever stop to think about the genesis of that vital information — the Census Bureau conducts the survey and the Bureau of Labor Statistics crunches the numbers. Now the data gatherers are idle and the analysts are sitting at home, while the first week of October slides by, threatening the timely release of this month’s labor force data on the first day of November (which happens to fall on a Friday).

Sure, it’s hard to compete with war memorials and cancer drug trials in the battle for public opinion; statistics don’t stand a… well… chance of pulling at the heartstrings. But when Congress gets around to finalizing 2014 agency budgets, let’s hope it gives a little more thought to the public good that all these temporarily missing numbers serve.

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A note to my dear readers who aren’t steeped in the world of statistics: “Chance” magazine is a publication of the American Statistical Association, the world’s largest organization of people working in the statistical sciences.