Workers & Economic Inequality

Flying Blind: Conservative’s Frightening Attack on Economic Data Collection

Blog Post by: Andrew Fieldhouse , on May 1, 2013

Congressional Republicans have routinely obstructed attempts to ameliorate the ongoing jobs crisis and Lesser Depression, but some members are now demonstrating apathy toward the unemployed and impoverished so extreme they want to forgo data collection on unemployment and poverty.

The Census Reform Act, introduced by Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), is an insulting misnomer and a disturbing reflection of values among the House Republican caucus’s libertarian camp. As Dylan Matthews details, the bill would “reform” the Census Bureau by confining its mission to the decennial population census, in effect eliminating the Current Population Survey (CPS) and the American Community Survey (ACS)—which track the national unemployment rate and poverty rate, respectively, among other stats. All surveys conducted (more efficiently, mind you) by the Census Bureau on the behalf of other agencies would be at least temporarily curtailed—and likely de facto gutted or ended by budgetary and administrative realties—including the National Longitudinal Study of Youth, a panel data goldmine for economists and researchers.

During the Great Depression, U.S. policymakers had contemporaneous data on prices and industrial production (albeit rudimentary by modern standards), but were largely flying blind—in particular, there were no official government statistics tracking unemployment. National income accounting (e.g., the Bureau of Economic Analysis’s National Income and Product Accounts, including GDP data) wasn’t fully developed—widely attributed to Simon Kuznets and Richard Stone—until after the 1936 release of John Maynard Keynes’ General Theory. Late in the Depression, but particularly in the aftermath of World War II, Congress tried to correct this economic policymaking handicap. As such, monthly unemployment surveys began in the 1940s and CPS unemployment data are only publicly available starting in 1948. Deliberately seeking to return toward this data-constrained Dark Age is mind bogglingly ill-advised.

Regrettably, conservative anti-government fervor has already taken a toll on data collection. The Bureau of Labor Statistics eliminated its International Labor Comparison, Mass Layoff Statistics, and Green Job Measures programs because of sequestration—which the GOP extracted by hijacking the debt ceiling and then refused to replace with sensible deficit reduction. And as Matthews’ notes, the ACS came under Republican attack twice last year, as members tried to make the survey voluntary and also eliminate it entirely.

It is often said that conservatives want to reverse the past century’s economic and budgetary policy innovations—exposed by efforts to eliminate the progressive income and estate taxes, social insurance legacies of the New Deal and Great Society, and anti-trust and other regulation. But the GOP’s efforts to castrate economic data collection in deference to some twisted libertarian concept of freedom take this regressing bent to a new extreme, entrenching the GOP as frighteningly anti-empiricist.

Tags: republicans, facts, economy, data, census bureau,

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