Proposed: A Federal Department of Science, Statistics, and Public Information

In the wake of 9/11, when about 3,000 civilians were killed on U.S. soil despite $billions spent on defense, a series of failures was revealed.   Various agencies had the information to identify and stop the attack, but failed to cooperate. Despite a huge military posted all over the world, there were only two military airplanes defending the entire East Coast of the United States, only one of which was armed. And the non-military agencies tasked with defending the U.S., such as the Coast Guard, U.S. Customs Agency, and Immigration and Naturalization Service, were distributed among a variety of federal departments, with little emphasis on any of them and no coordination between them. To remedy this 22 agencies were removed from other Departments and integrated into a new Department of Homeland Security.

Today, we face the equivalent of 9/11 in every part of the country every year. Life expectancy is falling, due to the cumulative disadvantage foisted on later born generations by those who came before, an opioid epidemic, and rising suicide. Life expectancy is set to fall for the third consecutive year for the first time in 100 years.

But this crisis has been building for two decades, its scope not understood until a couple of economists, with expertise not in vital statistics but rather in value added taxes, brought it to public attention.

The belated realization of what is happening is a failure for this country’s policy wonks and journalists every bit as large as 9/11 was for our intelligence agencies and military. And a similar response is required.

I will admit that the failure to identify and understand, and give American society a time to head off, the ultimate social failure of falling life expectancy is only a secondary motivation for this proposal.  This isn’t just about the hope that quality of information collected, analyzed and disseminated by the government could be better.  It is about the fear that it is about to become much worse.

That would consistent with a trend toward misinformation and deceit in our society that long pre-dates the Trump Administration, and extends far beyond the Republican Party. It has long been understood that, human nature being what it is, partisans, salesmen and hucksters would be tempted to shade the truth in pursuit of their self-interest, at the expense of social fairness and economic efficiency. One response was the creation of “truth telling” professions that, in exchange for an upper middle class lifestyle and the respect and honor of a profession, would provide a more objective check.

In the Generation Greed era, however, every single one of those truth-telling professions sold out. The accountants and appraisers, pension actuaries and executive pay consultants, stock analysts and bond raters, all have lied in exchange for a quick score.

And journalists? At the local level, it has mostly degraded to “press release journalism,” with stories placed by special interests with astro-turf arms issuing “reports,” balanced by quotes in opposition by the usual suspects generally known to be available. At the national level, profit making media businesses have learned that telling better off people in older generations what they want to hear attracts more advertising revenues that telling everyone else the facts they need. And tribalism, gossip (sex in particular) and ginned up conflict sells better than facts and analysis.

Despite the choices they make, deep down Americans know that foreign news sources, and government news sources such as PBS and NPR, are more trustworthy than profit-seeking sources such as FoxNews, MSNBC, and CNN.   Incredibly, our equivalent of the Soviet Union’s Pravda is more truthful than these business entities. Other high ranking sources include the business press, because businessmen may not want you to know the facts about them, but they do want to know the facts about you, in order to make money, and are willing to pay for it.

(FYI we contribute to public television and public radio, subscribe to the number one most trusted The Economist and to the Wall Street Journal. I frequently check Bloomberg News. And we have never had cable TV. It appears this isn’t because we knew better that the average American).

The next logical step in the direction of our society is the disappearance, deterioration, or falsification, of federal statistics. This possibility is generally associated with the Republicans, the predominant political party over the past 40 years – a time of deteriorating conditions for most Americans coming of age at the time.   From their point of view, what we don’t know – or believe is only happening ourselves as individuals – won’t hurt those who have become better off at our expense.

Moreover, Democratic think tanks are skilled in using actual facts selectively and in a misleading way, so factual information is the raw material from which Democratic lies are fashioned.   Republicans would prefer that the debate be fact-free and based on who has the loudest megaphone, which is to say Fox News.

Thus the Republicans have tried to de-fund federal statistical series and science for decades. And now that we have a President who does not believe lying is wrong if it helps him win. The only thing he has ever said that I believe without reservation is that he thinks it is in his interest to be unpredictable. If you can’t believe someone who has said he is not to be believed, is he really lying? Let’s say federal statistics suddenly start showing that America is Great Again!   Under this President, would they be believed? Could they be?   It’s a problem either way.

Moreover, the suppression of facts is really a generational, bipartisan tendency. Republicans have sought to suppress or manipulate factual data on what is happening to most Americans in business, and in the general society. But with soaring state and local government pension costs due to retroactive enrichments for the unions that support and fund them, Democrats seem less willing to provide accurate information on the public sector. As I’ve noted, data on Medicaid seemed to be disappearing in the Obamacare era, with the latest available now six years old.

And cooperation with the Governments Division of the U.S. Census Bureau has diminished.   New York City is now hiding additional retirement benefits for NYC teachers, police officers and firefighters in Census Bureau government finances data, and the Bureau seems unable or unwilling to correct this.

There is, however, a greater and more insidious threat than the disappearance of falsification of factual data in the “alternative facts” era. It’s deterioration, to the point of unreliability, due to inadequate resources and mismanagement.

There are no politically powerful interest groups lobbying for accurate factual information, and as long as things appear to be working, nobody is going to care about the quality of federal information until it is too late. It is like the cutbacks in maintenance on the NYC subway – a convenient target when resources were scarce, because the consequences would only show up a decade later. But would then take a decade or more to turn around.

Like the agencies now aggregated in the Department of Homeland Security, federal science, statistical and public information agencies are now scattered across federal departments with more immediate concerns. Over the years, the information the government provides has become less reliable and detailed as survey sizes are shaved, details dropped, checking and follow-up reduced. Ironically, the advent of the internet has provided far greater access to what has become gradually diminished information. Large numbers of people in the private sector analyze federal information collected by far fewer, an inverted pyramid rotting at the base.

Consider the response I got, after a long delay, for one inquiry.

“Thank you for contacting the U.S. Census Bureau regarding our statistics. We apologize for the delay due to staff shortage. Per your inquiry, please contact the data collection area directly.”

That was from the Governments Division, now hopefully compiling the 2017 Census of Governments – and the 2016 annual survey?   Yet there are also concerns about a far more important undertaking, the 2020 Census of Population and Housing.

Preparations for the count already are complicated by a sea change in the census itself: For the first time, it will be conducted largely online instead of by mail.

But as the Census Bureau ramps up its spending and work force for the 2020 count, it is saddled with problems. Its two top administrative posts are filled by placeholders. Years of underfunding by Congress and cost overruns on the digital transition have forced the agency to pare back its preparations, including abandoning two of the three trial runs of the overhauled census process.

Tribalist conflict is more interesting than the main issues.   Back when I was at City Planning, NYC politicians were going crazy about the fact that city residents were being counted in Upstate prisons, diminishing the city’s political clout. Meanwhile the Census Bureau had missed 300,000 housing units.

Civil liberties advocates also fear that the Trump administration is injecting political considerations into the bureau, a rigidly nonpartisan agency whose population count will be the basis for redrawing congressional and state legislative districts in the early 2020s.

These quotes point to a third issue, in addition to deceit and inadequate resources – mismanagement and disorganization. The federal bureaucracy was long staffed by workers who joined during its expansion during the 1960s and early 1970s. Since then the civilian staff of the federal government has been downsizing, with less recruitment and less training, and over the past 15 years a huge share of its prior workforce has retired, leading to a loss of institutional knowledge.   Most of the people I have corresponded with at agencies such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Bureau of Economic Analysis, and Census Bureau over the years are gone.

Along with the turnover, in some agencies, has come repeated reorganizations. And now, with the Trump Administration, a complete lack of leadership and competence at the top, as a huge number of political appointment jobs remain unfilled as a result of the President’s high turnover, chaotic, “you’re fired” style and the lack of a large organization behind him coming into office. (There more temporary political appointments than any President should have to make, but that’s another story).

During Hurricane Sandy, the U.S. faced the embarrassment of having its underfunded and obsolete weather forecast models turn out to be wrong, while the Euro model turned out to be right. And the upcoming census of population may turn out to be so flawed that it is never used for reapportionment and redistricting at all, like the 1920 census.

The results of the 1920 census revealed a major and continuing shift of the population of the United States from rural to urban areas. No apportionment was carried out following the 1920 census; representatives elected from rural districts worked to derail the process, fearful of losing political power to the cities. Reapportionment legislation was repeatedly delayed as rural interests tried to come up with mechanisms that would blunt the impact of the population shift. Congress finally passed a reapportionment bill in 1929. The bill declared that the House of Representatives would be apportioned based on the results of the 1930 census.

The 1929 act provided for an automatic reapportionment by the last method used unless Congress moved proactively to prevent that from occurring. The act also authorized the 1930 and subsequent decennial censuses.

The selfish culture of the Generation Greed era has also diminished the quality of factual data, as cooperation with statistical data collection – like voting and willingness to serve on juries – is much diminished.

That’s among individuals.   What does it say about states and localities when, given that corporations are required to promptly and publicly report their earnings every quarter, finance data from the 2017 Census of Governments, if it comes off at all, many not be available until late 2019 or 2020? Consider Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution.

The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government, and shall protect each of them against Invasion; and on Application of the Legislature, or of the Executive (when the Legislature cannot be convened) against domestic Violence.

How about against fraud?   You can’t have a republican form of government if people can’t get accurate information about how much they are paying, and what they are getting, relative to other parts of the country.

So what agencies might be consolidated in a federal Department of Science, Statistics and Public Information?

From the Department of Agriculture, the Agricultural Research Service, Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service, National Agricultural Library, National Agricultural Statistics Service, and National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

From the Department of Commerce, the Census Bureau, Economic Analysis Bureau, Economics and Statistics Administration, National Institute of Standards and Technology, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and National Technical Information Service.

From the Department of Energy, the Energy Information Administration.

From the Department of Health and Human Services, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, National Institutes of Health and National Library of Medicine.

From the Department of the Interior, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the National Biological Service, to the extent it still exists.

From the Department of Labor, the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

From the Department of Transportation, the National Transportation Safety Board and Research and Innovative Technology Administration, along with the National Transit Database and Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

From the Department of the Treasury, the Financial Research Office.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

And the Federal Accounting Standards Advisory Board, Geographic Names Board, Government Publishing Office, Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration, Federal Register Office, National Commission on Libraries and Information Science, National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities, Institute of Museum and Library Services, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Public Radio, National Science Foundation, National Skill Standards Board, and the Smithsonian Institution.


A full list of federal agencies is here.

What a mess – almost as bad as the State of New York, with its ever-increasing number of public authorities.   If discretionary federal spending keeps shrinking, because federal revenue falls with tax cuts and spending on today’s seniors and their debts continues to increase, there are going to be a whole lot of agencies with just three people left in a basement room somewhere, with no telephone or internet connection.

As proposed the Department of Science, Statistics and Public Information, to stay out of the “alternative facts” fray, would limit itself to collecting and disseminating factual information, leaving opinions as to what that information means and what to do about it to others. To that end it could have a nine-person oversight board with no more than three from any one political party.

So much for the proposal.   Is there any chance of such a Department being created, by partisan elected officials from a generation with a history of rationalization and deceit?

As cynical as I am, I think it is possible.

The Democrats are not actually the party of truth, but given the sudden interest in actual facts among their supporters, they might wish to pretend to be. Senator Schumer, were he made aware of such a proposal, might see it as a way to brand the Republicans as the political party of self-serving fantasy and deceit, all while expecting those Republicans to vote it down.

Then the Republicans, not wanting to be tarred with that label and preferring to claim that the problem was civil servants politicizing factual information rather than just reporting it, might endorse it, expecting Schumer to back off. Particularly given the possibility that The Donald would appoint the first secretary.  And put the blame on Obama’s Dream Hoarders,

Isolated and comfortable in their Chappaquas, for not figuring out what was going on in the rest of the country and sounding the alarm sooner.   Donald Trump is President, for the most part, because he figured out something that they didn’t, and took advantage.   That is pretty embarrassing.

Thus both parties might end up endorsing something neither would actually want.

And there is another factor.   Politicians like to pretend they are doing things for people, in order to promote themselves. But with Generation Greed having bankrupted this country at every level of government, in the private sector, and even in many families, there will be less and less scope for action that costs money. Therefore politicians will be looking for things they can do that provide action, or the illusion of action, at little or no cost.

Thus more $1 million studies and initiatives, since words with “illions” in them sound big.  More painted bike lanes rather than subway lines.  And perhaps, a federal Department of Science, Statistics and Public Information.  With someone who actually understands and cares about the collection, analysis and dissemination of factual information in charge.