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The Federal Government’s Social and Economic Data Is In Danger And We Need To Save It

APTOPIX Budget Battle

As a historian, I rely on federal data to help tell stories about our collective past. So I am proud to work with Data Rescue Austin (#DataRescueATX), which is one of many local citizen archivist groups organized in the wake of last year’s election. #DataRescueATX works with national organizations like DataRefuge and the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI) to identify, back up, and help preserve freely accessible federal data resources in the event that they are removed from public view and use. These organizations are particularly concerned with preserving federal data that supports climate and environmental research and advocacy. But the federal government also collects and distributes extensive social and economic data, which is also at serious risk of politicization and suppression. It is important to advocate for, protect, and preserve this data as well.

Accessible, reliable information is the lifeblood of democracy. So it is no historical accident that the United States’ federal government is the largest—and possibly the most effective—compiler, repository and disseminator of social and economic data in the history of the world. Aside from the federal government's crucial role in support of the hard sciences, arts, and humanities, the social and economic data it collects, preserves and distributes is absolutely foundational to what we know about ourselves, and to our ability to plan for the future. That vast trove of data is a vital part of the American civic tradition, helping to sustain and stabilize our legal and political orders.

Although civil authorities in America have been collecting basic census data since the colonial era, the large-scale, systematic use of federally collected social and economic data in policy-making dates back the mid-to-late 19th century. As both American society and the American economy grew larger and more complex during the “Age of Progress”, statistics became an increasingly useful way of understanding patterns of continuity and change, identifying and responding to economic and social problems, and developing a basis for rational planning. By the 1860s, the federal government was collecting data on manufactures, fisheries, agriculture, and social metrics like church membership, taxation rates, poverty and crime.

Among the most important milestones of federal statistical record keeping was the establishment of the Federal Bureau of Labor in 1884. Initially modeled after state labor agencies, the Bureau of Labor was tasked with compiling and disseminating statistics on American employment and productivity. The new bureau produced cutting edge work on both social and economic issues, and developed innovative statistical methods to better quantify and analyze the country’s rapidly changing economic and social landscape.

Today, that agency is known as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and is part of the larger Department of Labor. The BLS has a proud history of measuring inflation, employment, pay rates, productivity, and consumer spending. It has served as the model for many of the data-gathering agencies that came after it: strictly non-partisan, highly rigorous, and well respected across the political spectrum. Its data have been used to craft better public policy. Collectively, these agencies accounted for only .18% of the federal budget in 2016, which is also a small fraction of the financial value—both to the private sector and the American public—of the data they produce. (For those interested in a deeper look at the role and importance of federal statistics, check out this joint report by the Hamilton Project-AEI).

For over a century, data gathering on American society and its economy has been a settled function of federal government. For over a century, that data has been used to guide decision-making in private industry, craft and hone public policy, and keep public officials accountable. No major national political figure since the Civil War has explicitly challenged the credibility—and even the utility—of the social and economic data collected by federal agencies.

Until now. During his successful run for the presidency last year, Donald Trump:

  • loudly and repeatedly dismissed the accuracy of the jobs numbers collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which showed a strengthening job market under Obama.
  • Suggested that the actual unemployment rate might be as high as 42%. He claimed that crime was rising toward “record levels” which is disproven by the work of the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), whose statistics have shown overall crime to be near historic lows.
  • Tweeted that 81% of all white homicide victims are killed by African Americans, for which he cited something called the “Crime Statistics Bureau--San Francisco,” which doesn’t exist. The FBI does exist however, and its statistics show that 15% of whites were murdered by blacks in 2014—an error factor of 5.4.
  • Claimed that America’s GDP had dipped “below zero” for the first time ever. (He meant GDP growth, and it happens all the time.)

All of these statements are--and have been--easily disproven by federal data. And they comprise only a fraction of the untruths he has uttered—both during the campaign and as president—that run completely counter to what we know because of federal data. Yet rather than concede the proof of his errors, Donald Trump and his officials have doubled down on his demonstrably false claims, while at the same time impugning the press as “fake news,” and the federal agencies whose data contravenes his statements as part of an undemocratic “deep state.”

Rather than rising to the defense of federal data collection, the Republican Party, which controls both houses of Congress, has essentially adopted Trump’s war on federal information as their own. Current Republican bills both the Senate and the House would, for instance, prohibit federal funds from being used "to design, build, maintain, utilize, or provide access to a Federal database of geospatial information on community racial disparities or disparities in access to affordable housing." Another Republican house bill threatens to make large sections of the American Community Survey—an important yearly survey sent to 3.5 million Americans per year since 1940—“voluntary” rather than legally mandated. This data has proven immensely valuable over the years, and its loss can only negatively effect future policy outcomes.

There's a grim logic to all of this. Aside from their historical value, the statistics gathered by executive agencies like the BLS are an important tool for grading our public servants. These numbers cut past the rhetoric and political spin to reveal the real-world consequences of actual public policies. As with all presidents before him, they will be among the truest measures of President Donald Trump--particularly as he compares to his immediate predecessor.

Trump and the Republicans are now in position to warp the federal government’s information regime to their will. As it happens, most of the agencies that gather social and economic data are part of the executive branch. The Trump administration has already moved strongly to subordinate and stifle the agencies under his direct control. Until this year, for example, Mick Mulvaney was a congressman from South Carolina. In 2011, Rep. Mulvaney was at the center of a movement of hardline conservatives to trigger a default on the federal debt, risking a possible global economic catastrophe. In 2013, he nearly single handedly blocked an emergency relief bill for victims of Hurricane Sandy by insisting that every dollar spent be offset by equal cuts somewhere else in the federal budget. He is now Donald Trump's head the Office of Management and Budget.

The head of OMB was already a powerful position. But last Monday, Trump signed an executive order instructing Mulvaney’s OMB to come up with a plan to “reorganize...or eliminate unnecessary federal agencies.” On paper at least, Mulvaney now has the power to wipe out whole executive agencies without oversight, justification, or recourse.

The Mulvaney appointment is of a piece with other personnel moves that undermine the core functions of crucial federal agencies within the executive branch. Trump has placed a man to rejects climate science in charge of the EPA. He has placed a man who believes that Hillary Clinton received millions of fraudulent votes in the last election in charge of the Department of Justice, and a woman who has worked openly to dismantle public schools in charge of its Department of Education.

These actions go beyond ideology. They are purposely destructive, unaccountable, and antidemocratic. And if there were any lingering doubts about the motives behind them, Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, laid them to rest at CPAC last month, when he swaggeringly vowed that the Trump administration would fight “every day” toward the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” By definition, an “administrative state” is a state that counts things. By destroying the federal government’s ability to produce and disseminate credible social and economic data, the Trump administration looks to strike a blow against the heart of our democratic system. In the information vacuum Trump and the Republicans are trying to create, the truth will be whatever they say it is.

All of which makes federal data preservation a fundamental act of resistance. Datarescue Austin is part of a nationwide effort to scrape as much data from federal servers as possible so that it can be safely backed up and preserved on private servers. We know that scientific data—particularly data which demonstrates the reality of climate change—is under threat under the current administration. But we also need to protect the social and economic data that tells us about our history, and helps us plan for our future. That data belongs to us. And right now, it is vulnerable.

But we also need the federal government to continue collecting data in order to maintain its consistency and comprehensiveness. That requires keeping close watch on what Mulvaney does to the federal statistical system, and pressuring congress to stop him if he should attempt to dismantle it under the phony guise of cost-saving. Below is a list of major at-risk agencies that collect social and economic data. Each is part of the Federal Statistical System of the United States--the decentralized network of federal agencies that produce data about the people, economy, natural resources, and infrastructure in the United States.

  • Bureau of the Census (USCB) under US Department of Commerce: Conducts Decennial Census.
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) under US Department of Labor: Principal fact-finding agency for the U.S. government in the broad field of labor economics and statistics.
  • National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) under the US Department of Education: Collects, analyzes, and publishes statistics on education and public school district finance information in the United States.
  • National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS): NASS conducts hundreds of surveys and issues nearly 500 national reports each year on issues including agricultural production, economics, demographics and the environment. NASS also conducts the United States Census of Agriculture every five years.
  • National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS): Provides statistical information to guide actions and policies to improve the health of the American people.
  • Energy Information Administration (EIA) under US Department of Energy: responsible for collecting, analyzing, and disseminating energy information to promote sound policymaking, efficient markets, and public understanding of energy and its interaction with the economy and the environment.
  • Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) under US Department of Commerce: provides official macroeconomic and industry statistics including the gross domestic product of the United States.
  • Economic Research Service (ERS) under US Department of Agriculture: Provides information and research on agriculture and economics. (Site appears to be offline).
  • Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) under US Department of Justice: Collects, analyzes and publishes data relating to crime in the United States.
  • Statistics of Income Division (SOI) under IRS/Department of the Treasury: Collects and processes data so that they become informative and shares information about how the tax system works with other government agencies and the general public.
  • Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) under US Department of Transportation: Compiles, analyzes, and makes accessible information on the nation's transportation systems; collects information on intermodal transportation and other areas as needed; and improves the quality and effectiveness of DOT's statistical programs through research, development of guidelines, and promotion of improvements in data acquisition and use.
  • Office of Research, Evaluation, and Statistics (ORES), part of Social Security Administration: Provides statistical data on OASDI and SSI program benefits, payments, covered workers, and other indicators; Sponsors special-purpose survey data collections and studies to improve data for research and statistics related to social security issues; develops links between administrative record data and survey data for use in Social Security research and policy analysis.

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Trump is Bad. The Unitary Executive is Worse.

In the landmark 1974 Supreme Court case United States v. Nixon, the embattled President Nixon invoked executive privilege to stop the release of his taped conversations with indicted subordinates in the Oval Office, including discussions about the Watergate break-in. Nixon’s conception of executive privilege was breathtakingly broad. As his lawyer, James D. St. Clair put it, Nixon considered himself “as powerful a monarch as Louis XIV, only four years at a time, and [...] not subject to the processes of any court in the land except the court of impeachment.” Since the “court” of impeachment is actually Congress, Nixon was in fact arguing that as president, he enjoyed absolute immunity from the judiciary.

The Supremes didn’t go for it however, unanimously rejecting Nixon’s claim as “contrary to the basic concept of separation of powers and the checks and balances that flow from the scheme of tripartite government.” The president resigned two weeks later.

But even though Nixon lost his case, events were definitely trending in his direction. Remarkably, Watergate proved barely a speedbump on the road to an ever-more powerful “unitary executive.” For a number of reasons (the deepening dysfunctionality of American electoral politics not the least of them), the legislative and judicial branches have willingly ceded authority to the executive branch ever since.

Some of the blame for this goes to Gerald Ford. Preemptively declaring “our long national nightmare” to be over, Ford pardoned Nixon, foreclosing a rare opportunity to reign in the power of the presidency. A decade later, after Oliver North, one of Ronald Reagan’s military aides, began arranging funding for the Nicaraguan Contras via the illicit sale of arms to Iran, the Reagan White House pushed the concept of executive privilege just as far as Nixon had. Farther, perhaps, because Reagan actually got away with it--assuming symbolic (and thus meaningless) “responsibility” for the actions of his subordinates, of which he nevertheless claimed to be unaware.

But it was 9/11 that really supercharged the consolidation of executive power. The George W. Bush White House used the attack to engineer a fake casus belli for the invasion of Iraq, a geopolitical blunder of world-historic proportions. It created black sites, enacted torture, ramped up spying on American citizens, and shrouded its decision-making in ever-greater secrecy.

Barack Obama’s election in 2008 was widely viewed as a popular repudiation of everything George W. Bush had stood for. But far from rolling back the enhanced security powers bequeathed to him by his predecessor, Barack Obama added to them, ordering several major military actions without any congressional approval, and prosecuting whistleblowers with unprecedented ferocity. Stymied by Congressional Republicans throughout both his terms, Obama also came to rely on executive orders to govern responsively.

Through it all, the guiding assumption of the national press and political class has remained that any president would, at the very least, abide by certain norms of behavior as to the use of their broad authority.

But in just his first week, Donald Trump has already shown the entire world the how dangerous it has always been to rely on the character of popularly elected chief executives as the only bulwark against authoritarianism.

Because Trump—a profoundly damaged human being if ever there was one—is now the most unfettered, institutionally powerful president in American history. He has more latitude to prosecute wars of choice than any president before him. He has more power and technical capacity to spy on anyone, anywhere.

Overseas, Trump’s White House can operate with less external oversight and more secrecy than any before it. Building on Bush II and Obama’s extensive use of drones, Trump commands more authority to order the assassination of anyone he deems a threat to national security. At home, he has more tools at his disposal with which to manipulate and punish the press, spy on political opponents, and intimidate potential whistleblowers.

Perhaps most worrisomely, Trump has more power than any executive before him to further degrade the power of the other two branches. With the help of Republicans in Congress, he is ramrodding profoundly unfit appointees to head crucial agencies with an absolute minimum of oversight. (Senators charged with confirming potential Education Secretary Betsy DeVos were arbitrarily limited to five minutes each.) And on the White House webpage describing the branches of the federal government, the judiciary branch temporarily disappeared altogether.

And thanks to his predecessors, Trump has plenty of rhetorical and legal ammunition with which to justify all of this. Indeed, the Trump administration is already defending executive overreaches like the refugee ban simply by repeating, ad nauseum, that the Obama administration did exactly the same things. Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s serpentiform advisor, justified the refugee ban to one reporter by saying, “President Obama did it, now President Trump is doing it.” That’s a lie, of course. The Obama Administration never came close to barring whole classes of refugees based on their countries of origin. But get used to hearing it, because it will be the party line after every one of Trump’s executive overreaches, no matter how egregious. And unfortunately, if Trump's administration starts prosecuting journalists for doing their jobs, that line will contain more than a hint of truth.

Still, we are where we are. If there is a silver lining to any of this, it’s that the Trump presidency represents an opportunity to correct a historic mistake going back at least some forty years. Our government is comprised of three equal branches. In order to be truly “equal,” they have to serve as a check on one another at all times, not just when the opposite party is in power. The “unitary executive” is a historical lie, and a precondition to autocracy. Beyond just seeing Trump impeached, his opponents should look to restore balance to the federal branches. This requires targeting the House and Senate leaders for at least as much political pushback as we give the president himself. Until men like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell put country over party—or (preferably) are replaced by people who do—there's really no stopping Donald Trump.

Update: I note, with no particular satisfaction, that I posted this a few hours before the Trump administration night-fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates, who had refused to enforce last week's immigration ban. The Saturday Night Massacre it ain't; Trump is well within legal bounds to do this. But the White House press release accompanying her firing reads like it was written by a pre-pubescent Nixon himself, noting darkly that Yates has "betrayed the Department of Justice," and is "weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration."

It's worth noting that Sally Yates worked at the Justice Department for 27 years, serving administrations from both parties. To accuse her of "betraying" anything is both ludicrous and deeply unsettling. It's also worth remembering that while Trump can fire his legal staff whenever he likes, it is the AG's job to tell him when he's wrong, which is what Yates just did. At least that's what Jeff Sessions thinks the AG does, right?

If the shades of Nixon are this obvious from the cheap seats, I can only imagine how things look inside the Beltway these days. Yeesh.

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