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Sunday, July 03, 2005

Anderson and Fienberg selections

Commenting on this book is a slippery slope, but here goes.

Because the issues of the role of the President as head of government and state rather than as sovereign, the separation of Church and state, and the exclusion of the armed forces from politics were settled so early in American history, factions form around issues stemming from the federal system set up in the Constitution, and how that system affects traditional, local authority like the States of the Union and like private religious and cultural organizations.

So what seems like an objective process, counting the population every 10 years and mechanically determining the relative apportionment of House seats to states, reflects broad, political tensions that also shift with time. In turn, these tensions play out as a series of arguments about governmental procedures, rather than debates about principle. In the short term, there is a certain amount of demagoguery that passes for principled debate; in the long run, politicians are willing to let the bloodied bureaucrats do the heavy lifting, if points appear to have been scored.

Thus, the Census Bureau is not going to be abolished, but its budget may be held hostage, and it may be ravaged by litigation. Both parties's political appointees to executive positions in the Bureau will be tormented by the party out of the executive branch. Conservatives who value the appearance of simplicity and fantasize about the United States in the Federal era will attack sampling or other procedures to correct the census count even if it can be shown that the Republican party would have benefitted from theoretically sound corrections (see pp. 322-323). The final confusion comes when a politicians from both parties in a state known for progressive social policy over the last 150 years attack sampling just because losing another congressional seat is onerous. This is where a state insisting on its rights resembles Oliver Twist's plea for more food.

About the Wisconsin predicament, one can infer from the book some of the state's problems with loss of population in Milwaukee, loss of jobs to other states, and so on, but the authors avoided spelling out the implications of losing that congressional seat. Although Wisconsin has been electing Republicans to the legislature, it has become fairly reliable for the Democrats in Presidential elections since 1992, just like other formerly Republican states like Iowa and Minnesota. The loss of an elector means that Wisconsin will have less impact on the 2008 election. (Loss of population overall means less in Federal $, exaggerated in Wisconsin's case because historically the state has had fewer military installations than states in the South and the West.)

In terms of grand electoral strategy, a study to follow this book would look for a correlation between states from which the two major parties are getting their biggest contributions and shifts in the sizes of state congressional delegations. The allegations of fraud in Florida and Ohio really point to electoral vote shaving, much like point-shaving. The authors are correct to point out that the management of national elections, which varies wildly from state to state, is a more significant determinant of the possible effect of corruption on electoral vote totals than tampering with census-taking.

The Census Bureau has shifted from being an instrument of the ideology of states rights to a scapegoat for permanent demographic changes that are altering the sites of authority in America. What the authors might have said, is that changes in census-taking and their effects on apportionment are triggered by prior economic and demographic changes, so that the distribution of Congressional seats and thus of power reflects the movements of the American population of 15 to 20 years ago. (The fact that state legislative districts were "malapportioned" for forty years in the mid-20th century shows how long lasting bad policies can be and how long it takes to correct their effects.) Nobody really knows where we're headed now, though I imagine both parties have very accurate, proprietary demographic projections that we won't see for a long time. It's clear that the authors scoff at the heat of arguments about such a thin slice of the surface of what's going on.


At 10:24 AM, Blogger Elizabeth H. said...

“Who Counts?” has made me think about the census for, probably, the first time ever. Its something that is too easy to not think about, that once I learned the history and methodology, I was speechless. I had no idea that the process was so overtly politicized! The sentence that struck me was on page 296: “Who could oppose better census numbers for the nation? The answer is political officials who believe that their interests are not best served by a more accurate count.” (Just one more example of how people manipulate data to serve their own interests.) Not only is such a system screwing with fair representation, but its possibly denying some of the more in-need districts the support they require. This is an institute that ought to be non-partisan so that all can fairly and equally benefit.
What I kept asking myself when reading this book, though, was they were very good with the “what”s and “who”s, but not too keen on the whys. I kept wondering, “Why are there so many people left uncounted? Why aren’t they returning their census forms?” It seems rational that the U.S. Census would want answers to these questions because it would help remedy the root of the problem. To understand why people aren’t returning census forms would help alleviate the low response rate, and while I know that this may simplify the issue a bit (there will always be non-respondents), its an area to consider. Especially when you see that a significant proportion of non-respondents are racial or ethnic minorities – to me that begs the question, “Can they read English?” For many (more than the government chooses to acknowledge, at least), English is not a first language. Can those people read and understand the form? Probably not. Would it benefit census takers to translate the form into Spanish, Hmong, etc? Quite possibly. This just seems a logical step towards counting everyone.


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