The U.S. Census

As a general rule, the Founding Fathers get way too much credit. The Declaration of Independence was basically plagiarized from John Locke; a lot of the Constitution is downright awful, either from a moral standpoint or a procedural one. Let’s not even get started on the Bill of Rights…

One thing the Founders do not get enough credit for, though, is the Census. In Clause 3 of Article I the Constitution mandates: “The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.”

It’s not flashy or glamorous, but it’s hard to understate its importance. People so often recall the grand philosophical ideas espoused by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, et al., and as a result we tend to think of them more as political philosophers than as actual policy makers. This is understandable, but not really accurate. What the Founders were doing, after all, was establishing a country. So while Josh may be thrilled that the Founders decided to prohibit government regulation of speech, I’m more impressed by whomever stood up and said, “It would probably be really helpful if we counted each other every ten years or so.”

We often get stuck in complicated, nuanced debates over the meaning and values of abstract concepts discussed in the Constitution. These things are certainly important, but, on a prosaic, day-to-day governance level, probably not as important as knowing how many people are in the country. It’s also easy to forget that this was extremely important in the country’s earliest years: In the first 60 years of the United States, the nation’s population grew by about 500%, from just under four million to over 23 million.

This kind of data is not just important for determining representation in the House of Representatives, even if that’s what it’s most often associated with. How big should your army be? How should federal tax funds be distributed? Where should roads, bridges, railroads, and airports go? Etc. Not only can these questions not be answered, but it’s extremely difficult to even begin discussing them without some idea of how big the population is, and how it’s distributed. And these questions impact most Americans far more directly and obviously than questions like whether political donations count as speech, or whether corporations ought to be treated as humans.

Another reason to love the Census is a far more personal one: I really like statistics. Aggregate data is interesting and important even for non-governmental reasons, so having access to numbers that don’t rely on typical methods of extrapolation and estimation is incredibly appealing. Do you want to know why New York seems so much more vibrant than Los Angeles? Look at population densities. Why is Arizona passing such Draconian immigration laws? Well, almost a third of that state is Hispanic. Wondering why the Spurs and Mavericks have such an intense rivalry? Surprisingly, San Antonio is actually more populous than Dallas. The U.S. Census provides the most complete and accurate look at these numbers.

So if you forgot to mail in your census form last month, or you didn’t think it was worth it, then make sure you get counted. Whatever you think about the rest of the Constitution, it’s at least important to get the numbers right.

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8 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Douglas on April 26, 2010 at 8:01 PM

    Does New York seem more vibrant than Los Angeles? That seems arguable. I would have phrased the question differently, although admittedly it would have made the answer more obvious:

    Do you want to know why New York seems so much more crowded than Los Angeles? Look at population densities.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Josh on April 27, 2010 at 12:03 AM

    “Do you want to know why New York seems so much more vibrant than Los Angeles? Look at population densities. Why is Arizona passing such Draconian immigration laws? Well, almost a third of that state is Hispanic. Wondering why the Spurs and Mavericks have such an intense rivalry? Surprisingly, San Antonio is actually more populous than Dallas. The U.S. Census provides the most complete and accurate look at these numbers.”

    This might be the WORST argument for the Census I’ve ever heard. The first isn’t necessarily even true as Doug points out. The second is obvious without statistical measures and the answer to the third doesn’t even seem related to the question, but it’s not good enough of a non-sequitor to be amusing in jest.

    Regarding your argument, the Census is probably a good thing and you leave out perhaps what it’s most important for: allocating representatives and electoral college votes.

    But, I pretty adamantly disagree with this: “We often get stuck in complicated, nuanced debates over the meaning and values of abstract concepts discussed in the Constitution. These things are certainly important, but, on a prosaic, day-to-day governance level, probably not as important as knowing how many people are in the country.” Shouldn’t we answer the first-order question of whether the federal government is authorized to provide certain services (or, even if you’re not a Constituionalist, whether they OUGHT to be providing certain services), like education or health care, before we ask how much of it and in what distribution they should be providing these services? Statistics are awesome and allow us to reduce complex phenomena in the world into predictable patterns if done well. But, statistics have their dangers too and a worry I have with you putting such a premium on Census statistics is that it causes an under-emphasis of the normative grounding that justifies the use of those empirics in particular ways.

    And on this: “So if you forgot to mail in your census form last month, or you didn’t think it was worth it, then make sure you get counted. Whatever you think about the rest of the Constitution, it’s at least important to get the numbers right.” It’s inconsistent for you to support the statistical argument in favor of not voting (one vote has virtually no chance of making a difference) YET support sending in your census ballot on the grounds you use. (I could see a justification based on the expected hassle of Census employees at your door and potential fine). There are other grounds for sending in the census, but surely it’s not because your one ballot is going to alter anything since it’s absence is no more meaningful than a rounding error.

    Reply

    • Posted by John S on April 27, 2010 at 2:25 AM

      Wow, Josh. Where to even begin?

      First, at the end: I have never, on this blog or anywhere else, said that the main reason you shouldn’t vote is because your vote won’t make a difference. That’s a silly, defeatist (if probably true) argument. There are dozens of much better reasons why voting is stupid and bad, but I won’t go into that right now.

      Next, your dismissal of questions like “NY vs. LA” and “Arizona on immigration” (although, I’m curious how the Arizona question is “obvious” if you don’t know facts about the state’s population) is petty. Of course things are still debatable with statistics, but data certainly do shed light on these questions. People like Doug may debate the finer points of certain questions, and debate is welcome, but the numbers make the arguments more substantive.

      Finally, to your main point, that the Census devalues normative questions of government. Normative questions are important, of course, but I do think that political philosophy and normative debates are pretty impotent without hard data. Plus, I think that a lot of normative questions, like “Should the government provide education or health care?”, DEPEND on knowing the data. You may disagree, but I would suspect that a lot of peoples’ answer to the questions would depend on how many people would suffer from lack of education/health care in the absence of government provisions. I don’t want to sound like I’m belittling philosophy, but a lot of normative questions do seem irrelevant or academic without concrete statistics.

      Reply

      • Posted by Josh on April 27, 2010 at 9:29 AM

        Wow, John. Where to even begin?

        1. On voting, it’s not your main argument, but it’s surely an argument you should support, isn’t it? If say, the probability of your vote changing the outcome of the election rose to 50% that would make a stronger case for voting, right? Voting has a cost (the transaction cost of going to the voting location as well as a research cost if you want to be an informed voter) and benefits too (one of which is the possibility of altering the outcome of the election): if the benefits rise surely you’d be willing to incur more costs as well, meaning it is more likely to be cost-justified to vote. Or, should we not be using statistical probability to make decisions like voting?

        2. Your Arizona question shows the PROBLEM with misuse of statistics not its benefit. California, New Mexico, and Texas, too, have many hispanic immigrants. Why aren’t they passing Draconian immigration laws? The answer, if we find one, is not found in statistics but theory. What about the Arizona state legislature/political system/voters differs from these other states that suggests a particular causal mechanism? This is the big question to ask. Statistical analysis may test theory but the theory is doing the bulk of the work. The fact that AZ has 1/3 Hispanics is trivial in this analysis: to say, that one of the benefits of statistics and the Census is to tell us how many hispanics there are in AZ undersells the Census and statistics.

        3. “You may disagree, but I would suspect that a lot of peoples’ answer to the questions would depend on how many people would suffer from lack of education/health care in the absence of government provisions.” This is a pretty demagogic approach to political philosophy. I think the very framing of your question has embedded in it normative assumptions that need to be justified by political philosophy. What role should suffering from lack of education/health care play in our analysis? Should it just affect WHO is providing the service? In other words, is it just a question of federalism? Or does more suffering give the government a power they didn’t have without that suffering existing? The first-order questions are political philosophical ones; using “hard numbers” to answer them obscures the questions in the first place.

        Reply

        • Posted by John S on April 27, 2010 at 1:08 PM

          1. Eh. I mean, I do concede that voting doesn’t make a difference, but I don’t think that if the odds fundamentally changed, then voting would make sense or be okay. It’s just not something I really consider in my normative analysis of whether voting makes sense.

          2. Well, duh. Statistics don’t give us the WHOLE picture. I’m not saying, “Arizona is 1/3 Hispanic, therefore it must pass stupid immigration laws.” The question is obvs more complicated than that (as are discussions of NY vs. LA, Spurs/Mavs, etc.) but stats help us get a clearer picture. Just look at how stats function in sports: Looking at stats doesn’t always tell us who is better definitively, but it certainly helps shed light on the question.

          3. Similar to #2, yes, political questions are complicated. Most policy debates involve both political philosophy discussions and pragmatic discussions. But if we can’t answer the latter ones, then the former ones are irrelevant. I don’t really think it’s “demagogic” to say that whether or not government should provide health care depends on whether or not they can do it more comprehensively and efficiently than private insurers can. And that question involves numbers; they don’t obscure the debate, they illuminate it.

          Reply

    • Posted by Tim on April 27, 2010 at 3:03 AM

      My only response is that Josh’s use of “empirics” in his comment is a bit flummoxing. According to dictionary.com, “empiric” is either a person who uses the empirical method OR a quack/charlatan; it does not mean the statistics themselves. Perhaps, Josh would have been better off using a term that makes more sense, such as “empirical numbers.”

      Reply

      • Posted by Josh on April 27, 2010 at 8:20 AM

        Who is a person who uses the empirical method? Someone who “derive[s] from experiment and observation rather than theory” and my alternative noun use is just a variant of that. It admittedly is a crude way of saying it (I could have said something like an “empirical approach”) but it’s used enough in academic literature that I thought it was justified since, you know, slang is part of the language.

        Reply

  3. Posted by Wey on April 27, 2010 at 3:15 AM

    Perhaps, Tim, perhaps…

    Reply

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