Megan McArdle provides a reminder of the political nature of the Census:
If the Census is the key to political control, then you can expect parties to put more energy into gaming the census. Arguably, you’re already seeing this: Republicans are now making their second attempt to defund the American Community Survey, which uses sampling to generate data between censuses. The American Community Survey is not used for districting, but it is used for all manner of other policy purposes.
As the political fault lines harden in Congress, the battlegrounds are moving back to more hidden levers of policymaking. There are the courts, of course: we’re now in the third decade of a mostly undeclared war to gain control of the Supreme Court and do some unelected legislating. Data gathering and research funding are coming under fierce scrutiny. And on the national security front, secrecy and executive orders seem to be the order of the day for whoever is in the White House.
Before you say it, no, this isn’t just Republicans. But it’s not good on either side. As the legislature has ceased being able to legislate, both parties almost have to resort to more undemocratic methods to achieve their goals. The casualties, like judicial impartiality and good data for policymaking, are vastly more important than the causes for which this war is allegedly being fought.
To see more details of the recent Republican defunding attempt, see here.
Data is rarely impartial: the processes of by which it is collected, interpreted, and then used in policy can be quite political. That doesn’t mean that is has to be. Much of the grounding for social science is the idea that data can be more objectively collected and analyzed. Yet, within the realms of politics where data is often a means to victory, having a good handle on data can go a long way, as we saw in the 2012 presidential election or currently in debates among Republicans about how to handle voter data.
In the end, it will be fascinating to see how big data, from the Census to Facebook, does or does not become political. There are a couple of fault lines in this debate. First, there are people who will argue that having such data is in itself political and dangerous while the opposite side will argue that having such data is necessary to have more efficient and business government and business. This could be a debate between libertarians and others: should there even be big data in the first place? Second, there is a good number of people who like the idea of collecting and using big data but debate who should be able to benefit from the data. Can the data be used for political ends? If government should have its hands on big data, perhaps it is okay for businesses? Should individual consumers have more power or control over their contributions and participation in big data?