Now US Republicans want to scrap their “invasive” census

What is it about right-wing politicians?

Ted Poe explains why the census is bad to a group of beauty queens

Well, I have a theory. Canadian Conservatives like Tony Clement and US Republicans like Ted Poe (from, you guessed it, Texas), are scared silly of statisticians and scientists and would prefer to see them take a hike… because they deal in facts, not opinions or headlines or the party line. That makes these guys and their facts much harder to manipulate – and when it comes to major issues like global warming, a threat to established business interests.

A story ran in The New York Times recently entitled “Census Survey Asks Too Much, G.O.P. Says.” Hard on the heels of Minister Clement’s mighty gaffe over Canada’s Chief Statistician, we learn his US counterparts are demanding their Census Bureau put a stop to this data outrage – an unconstitutional outrage no less. As The Times reported (Aug. 19):

The Republican National Committee is demanding that the Census Bureau stop being so nosy, or at least stop requiring that Americans comply.

The Republican Party isn’t taking on the census itself, the count of the United States population made every 10 years, but the more comprehensive American Community Survey.

Just like our Conservatives, the Republicans are calling this survey “a dangerous invasion of privacy,” and “overreaching and intimidating.” And in a further parallel, Congressman Poe, chief sponsor of a bill to kill the A.C.S., says Americans don’t like it – even though Americans have indicated no such thing and continue to return their forms from year to year. Just as Canadians weren’t howling about Stats Can invading their privacy.

What’s all this got to do with the price of potatoes – or broadband for that matter? Empirically-based policymaking. In my 2 previous posts, I was lamenting the CRTC’s reluctance to collect true facts about the real world – instead of trying to fathom the “thoughts” of our fellow citizens in online surveys.

Detailed census data is, of course, about far more than broadband, extending to social security, educational programs, business decisions about resource allocation, child welfare and so on. So why would anyone – even a Republican from Texas – be against good census data?

I’m not sure if that even matters to Poe and his 34 co-sponsors. What’s amazing about the US story is the A.C.S. isn’t really manadatory, like our long-form census. The Bureau tries to use moral suasion rather than fines and to date no one has ever been charged with refusing to cooperate.

But never underestimate the power of sheer ignorance. I’m told that at Parliamentary hearings this year, our elected members showed a stunning lack of knowledge about satellite technologies, among other things. All of which makes a good argument for having an accomplished engineer or scientist running a federal portfolio that includes technology – like Marc Garneau, for example.

On a final note… I wonder what the Attilas would make of a real invasion of privacy, the kind that involves surreptitious use of software, preys on consumer ignorance and holds out the promise of huge revenues for everybody in the game. Where? On the Web, of course. Check out this muck-raker that appeared last week, from NPR – Tracking The Companies That Track You Online:

One of the fastest-growing online businesses is the business of spying on Internet users by using sophisticated software to track movements through the Web, so that the information can be sold to advertisers.

Julia Angwin recently led a team of reporters from The Wall Street Journal in analyzing the tracking software. They discovered that nearly all of the most commonly visited websites gather information in real time about the behavior of online users. The Journal series identified more than 100 tracking companies, data brokers and advertising networks collecting data — which are then sold on a stock market-like exchange to online advertisers.

Note to the overly-helpful right-wing guardians of our privacy, in both countries: Stop grandstanding and save your energy for a privacy problem that’s causing real harm.

D.E.