With the Comey and national security breaches blowing up all the news cycles right now there is one big story you may have missed: how the Trump administration forced out John Thompson as head of the Census Bureau.
Wait…what??? With everything else going on, why the hell does that matter?
In fact, it matters a great deal: Thompson’s departure and the troubles of the Census Bureau are scandal enough, but there is a broader and more troubling pattern of Team Trump’s seeking to dismantle government data collection to deny citizens the information they need to hold their government accountable.
Okay, you’ve probably already heard stories about Team Trump’s appointing non-scientists to science offices or their efforts to dismantle websites providing climate and energy data, either making it harder to access that data or removing it entirely. (You may have also read about the volunteers and scientists fighting bravely against the Trump tide in recovering and reposting the data.)
But Crooked Donald’s war on science isn’t just about the climate, he is part of a conservative war on social science too—so the Trumpistas are busy at work pulling down data that aids activists fighting for fair wages, secure affordable housing, documenting both gun violence and racism or simply allowing citizens to access data to see if their government is doing it’s job.
The best way to illustrate this opposition to data is to examine the most extreme zealot in the war on social science, Tea Party Senator Mike Lee of Utah. For the last three years, Lee has been pushing legislation to deny the federal government any authority or funding to study housing data to learn more homeless rates, affordable housing, poverty, the re-segregating of public schools and even the availability of housing for seniors.
As whacky as it sounds, there is a conservative school of thought that holds all social science is an affront to the notion of personal responsibility and worse, that social science data is just an excuse for researchers to find problems government needs to fix.
The good news is, Senator Lee is so extreme his bill will never pass. The bad news is, thanks to Trump, data-deniers may reach heights Sen. Lee never dreamed of.
And that’s where John Thompson’s ouster and the Census Bureau comes in: despite a non-partisan audit that declared the agency is already woefully underfunded and unprepared for the 2020 census, Republicans in Congress continue to slash agency funds even more.
The immediate impact will be that the initial 2020 census might give Republicans a leg up in gerrymandering Congressional districts to keep their political power. While that is bad, the problem is, census data does far more than just count people to set political boundaries.
Census Bureau data on seniors is crucial in assessing local services to help the elderly and those on fixed incomes. Census data is also being used to check on women’s wages and the effective of STEM programs in local schools; children’s health services and school lunches and Meals on Wheels Programs need accurate census data. And census data, combined with housing data, tells us how much affordable housing there is in every community.
Let’s be clear: no one is saying government data is perfect, but simply setting standards does help. In Flint, Michigan, unelected city managers and then state officials kept provided residents with false data on water safety—in the end, conservative Republicans blamed the EPA, but agency never examined Flint’s water until after the scandal broke. It was journalists and academics, using EPA standards, conducted independent tests of the water to expose both the danger and the scandal.
Thus, lesson from Flint is that more data better protects our citizens.
An even more dramatic example is what happened in Canada between 2006 and 2015: under the ultra-conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, many government data programs we effectively ended or blocked, with government scientists restricted from communicating with journalists and academics. Most of this data suppression was directed at energy and environmental programs, but data on wages, working conditions and housing were also affected.
And with no standardized government data, Canadian bankers, businesses and politicians had to rely more on “research for hire” projects paid for by private industry and trade associations more concerned with their bottom lines and shareholder returns than the common good.
Harper’s Canadian model of blocking independent government data so communities and policymakers have to rely more on corporate data is a model many American conservatives hope to institute here—and given what has happened since January 20th, they clearly have a friend in Crooked Donald.