The Attack On Government That’s Blinding America To Its Real Problems

CREDIT: Idaho National Laboratory

Data visualized

Data visualized

Data visualized

CREDIT: Idaho National Laboratory

When historians study nations, they take often take a broad view, casting a critical eye on their foundations. How did the average citizen in that time really live? Did their leaders make their lives better or worse? This often leads historians to identify deep underlying factors — the Roman drainage system, for example — that ended up mattering far more for that nation’s legacy than the ultimately ephemeral political squabbles that occupied their leaders’ attention.

The United States in 2013 is no different. The things that really matter to people’s lives aren’t likely to be leading CNN tonight. But our ability to figure out what the truly important things are — the stuff of life-changing improvements in people’s health and wealth — is being destroyed by our current small-government-by-crisis vogue.

I’m talking about that most unsexy of government services: data collection. Conservatives often argue that the state is really bad at collecting information, which is true inasmuch as authoritarian Marxism doesn’t tend to dictate economic prosperity from the top-down. But the government’s lack of perfect information doesn’t, as the attack often implies, mean that unintended consequences of economic regulations are necessarily bad.

Take, for instance, the government’s crackdown on lead levels. In the late 70s, the EPA recognized that lead gasoline poisoned children — lowering their IQs, hurting their development, and sometimes just killing them — and began phasing it out. What they didn’t know is that lead poisoning was twisting people’s brains in ways that made them more violent, causing a spike in dangerous crime. The subsequent nation-wide decline in crime appears to have been caused in large part by the anti-lead campaign.

How were we able to figure out the connection between lead and crime? Data put out by the U.S. Census, the Centers for Disease Control, the Department of Justice, and even the U.S. Geological Service gave think tankers and academics the raw material they needed to pinpoint the lead-crime connection. In turn, Kevin Drum reports, we now know that investing a further $20 billion in environmental lead reduction could produce $200 billion in gains from reduced crime, not to mention the incalculable human benefits from fewer murders and rapes.

The lead example shows how government data equips both the state and private individuals with the tools to discern the often mysterious underlying factors that really shape the quality of our society. The falling crime rate appears to be transforming both party politics and public attitudes toward harsh policing. Understanding its causes, and how to replicate its successes, is critical to developing the sort of political arrangements that’ll stand up to historians’ scrutiny. To build a great society, you need to understand what’s making people’s lives better — and worse.

The private sector isn’t very good at data collection, even though it’s very good at analyzing the raw information the government puts out. Academic and non-profit groups usually don’t have the resources to do raw data collection, and businesses usually don’t collect and publish data that can be as useful to the competition as it is for them. Indeed, in places where governments are weak, there often isn’t very good data at all — one of USAID’s most overlooked, but vital, functions is compiling birth and death statistics in poorly governed countries that can’t or won’t do the work on their own. Open-access data is a classic public good, and as such isn’t likely to be provided efficiently by anyone other than the state.

Roughly speaking, then, data collection and publication by the state allows the private sector to innovate in certain crucial ways. This symbiotic relationship between public data provision and private number crunching is vitally important to sustaining the research that helps people, both in the government and out, make people’s lives better around the world.

The damage done to the state’s half of this partnership is one of the least understood, but most insidious, consequences of the serial governance-by-crisis we’ve lived under since the 2010 elections. Tea Party small-government absolutism made legislative expansion of government services nearly impossible, and cuts to government services a necessity. A detailed accounting of the casualties of the sequestration and the government shutdown suggests that data provision has been one of its least noticed casualties.

Take the most recent shutdown. The Office of Personnel Management told departments that “the mere benefit of continued access by the public to information about the agency’s activities would not warrant the retention of personnel or the obligation of funds to maintain or update the agency’s website during such a lapse.”

Translated from Bureacrat to English, that means public data isn’t like the military or criminal justice systems, where the consequences of shutting down are obvious and immediate. When funding is scarce, the services with the least immediate, short-term benefits are likely to get the axe. So during the shutdown, critical statistics on the health of the economy and the health of the public were entirely hidden from the public eye.

The consequences of this disruption were not temporary. The shutdown has garbled inflation statistics for up to seven months, messing with the government’s ability to calculate Social Security and other benefit payouts people depend on. Furloughed medical researchers lost vital data, in some cases because they had to literally kill their lab rats. And funding for academic scientific research — an indirect way the state distributes data to the public — was ruinously disrupted. “Scientific research is not like turning on and off an assembly line. Experiments are frequently long-term and complicated,” one researcher told Wired. “You’ve probably just destroyed the experiment.”

And don’t forget sequestration, our current budget and the GOP’s de facto position on government spending. Sequestration cuts have forced several departments to cut reports on commodity prices and the state of the global workforce, with deeper cuts to other essential reports looming. The cuts to medical research could set scientific progress back a generation, according to a former NIH head.

“The return on taxpayer investment is almost infinity,” George Washington Professor Andrew Reamer said about the economic data being damaged by sequestration. It’s an appropriate expression because we quite literally cannot anticipate the costs of lost data. The entire point of publicly funded statistical surveys and research is that they allow us to make new discoveries, which by definition we can’t predict, let alone value.

Not every discovery lost to budget cuts, or even close, will be on the level of importance of the lead-to-crime link. But when the stakes are so important — historically important, even — why are we taking risks?