These Trying Times
May 16, 2017
Information is power, the old saw goes, but withholding information is powerful, too. It’s kind of disturbing to see how information is hidden in weird political shell games. Remember when people rushed to save public environmental data sets fearing they would disappear? Information about climate change that has been available at the EPA’s website since 1997 has been mothballed and replaced by news that it’s being updated, though that message has been there for weeks and it’s not clear what alternative facts will take its place. While the administration’s hand was forced and the previously-collected data was retained in an archived site, Trump’s proposed budget would ensure we know even less about the quality of our water and air or how the climate is changing. If we don’t have the facts, it’s harder to blame the industries that want a freer hand and fewer regulations to rein in their actions.
We’re good at concealing who actually benefits from government spending. Matthew Desmond’s recent article in the New York Times Magazine spells out how much upper-income homeowners are subsidized thanks to tax policy and how desperately inadequate our funds for housing assistance are – funds that the Trump budget would cut even further. (Currently three quarters of those eligible for housing assistance don’t get it and the wait lists for assistance can be years long or simply full up.) When Mitt Romney said 47 percent of the population were takers, he was generally correct – but he was wrong about who was in that category. When it comes to housing, it’s middle and upper class homeowners who benefit, and the impact resonates through generations. Desmond writes “It is difficult to think of another social policy that more successfully multiplies America’s inequality in such a sweeping fashion.” He points out that for less than one percent of the tax subsidy homeowners get we could end family homelessness in this country, but it’s a political non-starter. We don’t tend to see these enormous subsidies to homeowners because they’re in the tax code, not a line in the federal budget that can be easily axed.
The new target for pound foolishness is the 2020 census. We benefit immeasurably from the public data collected and shared by the U.S. Census. Businesses rely on it. Innovation depends on it. Redistricting also depends on demographic information collected by the Census. Congress thinks we should cut back on expenses – and on solid information for the public good.
There aren’t many people with the knowledge and managerial skills to run the decennial census, and one of those few just resigned, fed up with the political bickering over funding the 2020 census. We’re not the only country to court census controversy. Australia was slammed by privacy advocates for wanting to retain name-level specificity for up to four years, then had its site for collecting information taken down by distributed denial of service attacks. Canada’s ultraconservative PM Stephen Harper made the Canadian census voluntary, which meant important data for understanding society was lost. Though these moves are often made under the color of reducing spending, the reduction of information also benefits those who want to spend less on social programs. If we don’t know who’s in need, we can pretend that need doesn’t exist.
Funding a proper census would be a bargain compared to the public benefit it offers. I suspect most of the members of Congress opposed to providing the Census Bureau with adequate funding are happy to fund the NSA’s mass surveillance programs. (Rand Paul is the only exception I can think of.) Maybe if we were able to tax a tiny portion of those funds and transfer it to the Census we could know more about who we are and would be better positioned to act on that knowledge. But using public knowledge to inform action isn’t this administration’s strong suit.