Your Government *did* just get dumber… (that was fast)

Want to know who the biggest user of census data is? Government. To understand what services are needed, where problems or opportunities arise, or how a region is changing depends on having accurate data. The federal government, but also the provincial and, most importantly, local governments use Statistics Canada’s data every day to find ways to save taxpayers money, improve services and make plans. Now, at the very moment that governments are finding new ways to use this information more effectively than ever before, it is being cut off.

This is a direct attack on the ability of government to make smart decisions. It is an attack on evidence-based public policy. Moreover, it was a political decision – it came from the minister’s office and does not appear to reflect what Statistics Canada either wants or recommends. Of course, some governments prefer not to have information; all that data and evidence gets in the way of legislation and policies that are ineffective, costly and that reward vested interests (I’m looking at you, tough-on-crime agenda).

I wrote this on July 6th at the very beginning of the census scandal. What’s amazing is the short period of time it took for it to take on reality.

This week in a trainwreck of a press conference that pretty much every media outlet (save the ever loyal National Post) has mocked, Stockwell Day showed what the world of post-evidence based public policy will look like.

And what does it look like? Like a $5.1-billion a year increase in spending on prisons for a country with a declining crime rate in which 94% of Canadians survey feel safe.

Here is a scheme that only becomes defensible once you get rid of the evidence. Why? Because once you do that you can just make stuff up. Which is pretty much what the minister did. Take a look at John Geddes beautiful article which outlines how the Minister mislead the public about jail terms for criminals who conduct home invasions (they’ve gotten longer, not shorter).

Of course, for Conservatives the whole reason for getting rid of the census was that it was supposed to curtail big government. Stephen Taylor – Conservative blogger and cheerleader – says as much in his National Post Column. The beginning of the end of the Canadian welfare state. What was his line? “If it can’t be measured, future governments can’t pander.” It took about 9 days to disprove that thesis. A $5.1-billion dollar a year increase to create prison capacity for a falling crime rate is the case in point. Turns out even if you can’t measure it you can still do something about it. Just badly.

This isn’t the end of big government. It isn’t even the end of pandering governments. It’s just the beginning of blind government.

As an aside the people who should be most scared about this are the provincial governments. They just got made blind and didn’t even ask for it. It is also obvious that the Feds are going to push all sorts of spending on to them (like on prisons) that they didn’t ask for and don’t need. If they were smart, the provinces that have spoken out on the census (all of them except Alberta, BC and Saskatchewan) should announce they will conduct an independent census using the long form. This way they’ll actually have data to push back against the (now blind) federal government with. Better still, the provinces could license the aggregate data to make it free for everyone… except the feds, who when they come asking for the data (which of course they will) can be charge a big fat licensing fee. Perhaps a post worth fleshing out.

17 thoughts on “Your Government *did* just get dumber… (that was fast)

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  2. Actinolite

    Do the provinces have the right to create their own respective censuses? (censi?) Are they stepping on any jurisdictional issues if they try to mandate responses? Also, to be effective, there would need to be coordination on the form of the census, and the questions asked.

  3. Anya

    Just what Harper wants t do… make the Provinces do everyhing the Federal government used to do..That would play in to his Liberatarian thank you

  4. Stephen Taylor

    It's a poor argumentative technique to misrepresent an opposing point of view.You said, “for Conservatives the whole reason for getting rid of the census was that it was supposed to curtail big government.”However, you failed to acknowledge the actual reasons for the government policy change which was, by the way, making the long-form voluntary… not “getting rid of the census”.Actual reasons:- no jail or fines for neglecting to fill out long form- privacy concernsyou may not believe these to be good or valid reasons, but do address them as part of the actual debate rather than cherry picking your favourites.I pondered another reason for the change (ie. impeding government's ability to pander to special interest groups)… however, this was simply my musing. Arguing against this, only argues against my idea, however it fails to argue against the reasoning of the government for the policy change.Now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's talk about a couple of your points:You said that the notion that falling crime rate demands need for more prisons = dumbOf course, there are other factors to consider that are inconvenient to your point of view:- mandatory minimums- ending house arrest for certain “softer” crimesThis creates increased “demand” for prison cells.To the other point, government can still pander without data as you do point out, but if they do so against common sense (at least from the point of view of the electorate) they will find themselves unelected quickly. Statistics can be used to poorly justify policy and pointing to numbers can act as a crutch for bad decisions trumping common sense (80% of the Canadian population eat sandwiches, therefore we must obviously have a bureaucracy that monitors sandwich consumption as a cultural practice)

  5. brentonwalters

    Relying on “common sense” as a determinant of public policy is a pretty poor idea, especially as it regards this issue. Surveys* show many people are more afraid of crime, while statistics show that crime rates are gradually decreasing. So which do we pay attention to? Which do we use to determine public policy? The Conservatives want to use common sense, the public fear, while a smart government would realize, all things being equal, that it didn't need more prisons. There are other arguments to be made (old infrastructure, etc), but to rely on common sense rather than actual data is a poor approach to public policy.*totally uncited, apologies.

  6. Chris

    Stephen, there certainly *could* be other reasons to consider with respect to the proposed prison expansions in the face of a very long-term trend of declining crime rates.The entire point, however, is that these reasons were most emphatically NOT offered by the minister. The best reason he could come up with was an unsubstantiated claim that there are many unreported crimes. Even if this is true–and if it is true, the minister and the government should have no hesitation in explaining their reasons for thinking it is true–it is risible in the extreme to suggest that this is a problem best remedied by building more and more prisons (i.e. since unreported crimes cannot possibly result in convictions.)If the government believes that “unreported crimes” are a problem, it'd be much more cost effective to a) gather information about the rates of crime reporting, and b) develop policies specifically targeting that problem.This government has been systematically working at removing the possibility to make policy on the basis of evidence. It's a policy designed to make government ineffective, and to make informed criticism of government policy difficult or impossible.

  7. Kevin Milligan

    “However, you failed to acknowledge the actual reasons for the government policy change which was, by the way, making the long-form voluntary… not “getting rid of the census”.”Replacing the LF with a voluntary survey IS getting rid of the census.You are saying that Munir Sheikh and Ivan Fellegi (not to mention every other reputable economist and statistician in the country) are wrong that the voluntary survey is no replacement for the census?So, I can choose Stephen Taylor or Munir Sheikh's opinion on statistical theory. I know which way I am leaning.

  8. Kevin Milligan

    “Actual reasons:- no jail or fines for neglecting to fill out long form- privacy concerns”1) So adjust the penalties for compliance.2) So get rid of the invasive questions. Not the whole LF.Note that Tony Clement's mandatory short form, which I must complete on threat of jail, asks me to declare if my cohabitant is a room-mate or a same-sex partner. Apparently, that is not invasive.I'm all for a nice process of determining which SF or LF questions are most useful and which are too invasive. But I am pretty sure that the outcome of such a process would not lead to the current bizarre and indefensible outcome.

  9. Holly Stick

    Hey, they need to haved unreported prisons to hold all those unreported criminals for unreported lengths of times. Kind of like the 1100 or so arrested and brutalized by Harper's big expensive G20 police force.Harper don't need no stinkin' habeus corpus.

  10. Stephen Taylor

    The census still exists on the short-form.Which questions on the long-form (which goes to 20% of people, not 100%) do you believe constitutes a “census” in your opinion?Or is it the mere count of citizens and where they live which is captured by the short form? Is it only a census if we have a question about number of bedrooms? Or is that a question that doesn't necessarily have to be on a census so that a census retains its definition?If we are to do a “census”, we send out forms to 100% of people. Which questions are necessary on a “census” as you define it in your point of view? Really, the technical definition is much more simple and is fulfilled by the short form.You may argue for the questions on the long form, but they do not necessarily a “census” make.

  11. briguyhfx

    You discount David's argument, saying that he has created a strawman (which he hasn't). Then you create a satirical strawman (sandwich czar) to close your argument. Interesting.

  12. Stephen Taylor

    David addressed my imagined strategic reason that the PM is taking this track on the census. This reason was my musing, not the government's justification.I suggested that if he wanted to discuss the government's reasoning for making the long-form mandatory, he should address the government's reasoning, not my interpretation.He can address my interpretation, but he'd simply be debating my points, not the government's justification.

  13. Stephen Taylor

    Wow. You'll need to do more than call me ignorant in a debate to convince anyone of your argument.Why don't you answer my question instead of taking the ignorant dismissive approach? “Which questions are necessary on a “census” as you define it in your point of view?”You can disagree with me on principle (ie. that the government should compel its citizens to fill out this information for the benefit of informed public policy) or you can just lash out at me ad hominem as you've done.Really though, you haven't advanced the debate or defended your position. And here, I thought this was a place for rational thought, not ideological emotion couched in a phrase that feebly suggests you know what you're talking about.

  14. briguyhfx

    I can’t answer that question (“which questions are necessary”) because I am not an expert on demographic planning. I would pass that question on to the demographic experts. I wonder where we can find some of those?

    PS – I didn’t call you ignorant. I said you were ignorant on the subject of statistical methodology. Totally different. I’m sure you are an expert in certain fields, as are we all.

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