Today’s Twain of thought – and its bearing on tomorrow’s elections.

“Get your facts first; then you can distort them as you please”

–         Mark Twain

We are quick to see our Founding Fathers as prescient. How else could they have created a Constitution that has stood the test of time so durably?

The fact is they owed their success as much to insight as foresight. They knew that all men and women hunger to be free. That a big, populous country needed a representative democracy, and one that could accommodate a role for states within a federal structure.

They also understood this about human nature – you, I, all of us – are self-interested. Starting from this principle they then did their best to design the legal and political framework – among other things, to create checks and balances – so that our individual self-interest would be congruent with a greater good.

But they were no better than we are today at forecasting the future. [In fact, they owe whatever measure of success they’ve enjoyed largely to the fact that human nature has not changed over the past two hundred years!] In particular, they did not anticipate that decision making of the future would increasingly depend on data, on facts, on information. As a result, they didn’t foresee, let alone forestall, the conflict of interest inherent in gathering facts, and in the formulation of policy based on those same facts. Tomorrow we’ll look at some of the consequences for U.S. environmental policy. But today we’ll look at how well the Founding Fathers did in the one arena where they took data into account explicitly.

The only section of the Constitution that makes any mention of data is the piece that establishes the Census. [Do you know different? Please fill us all in!] The Founding Fathers needed this because in standing up the House of Representatives, they wanted to apportion membership according to population, and for this purpose, they required figures. At the time, they looked at the cost and time involved to gather the data, and decided every ten years would do.

Talk about opening up a can of worms! The idea of counting heads seems so simple. But it gets complicated quickly. Picture counting the kids in a school classroom, or counting heads on your tour bus, or making sure that your football team has precisely eleven men on the field for every down, and so on. We occasionally bungle even these things! And scale up that chore to counting millions (and even at the country’s birth there were already three million of us) and the task immediately grows even more complicated. People don’t stay put while we’re counting. They move around. People are born and die while we’re counting. Who’s in and who’s out? Do you count just property owners? Just men? Just free men? Just citizens, or do you include immigrant aliens? Immigrant aliens, or just legal aliens? How do you count the prison population? Do you count just people with homes? Or also the homeless? And if you can estimate the numbers of homeless more accurately than actually interview each and get them to fill out a questionnaire, which figure do you use? The statistical estimate, or the figures for those who actually completed the questionnaire?

For the past two centuries, politicians have attempted to remove Census accounts from the political arena. For example, they housed the Census in the Department of Commerce, which when it was established as the Department of Commerce and Labor in 1903, was supposed to be the nation’s statistical agency. Since then, Census has made every effort to focus on the counting, and ignore the politics. They give you the data. At that, their job is done. How you use the data is up to you. Want to tout your city’s growing suburbs? Go to it. Decry the growth of those same suburbs and the hollowing out of the urban core? That’s ok too. Gerrymander your Congressional district (see below)? Fine by them.

But despite these measures, the Census remains intensely, resolutely, sometimes bitterly, political. As recently as 2009 the incoming Obama administration found itself wrangling with Congressional Republicans over what the latter decried as the politicization of the then-upcoming 2010 count.

Why is the count so contentious? The answer isn’t to be found in the difficulty of counting, problematic though that is. Rather it’s because the Census matters in politics, and politics shapes our future (hold this thought: it’ll surface again when we look at environmental data). As time has gone on, the consequences of these choices have changed. Not only that! We have come to see these consequences with more clarity – and through the lens of self-interest (there’s that term again). The Founding Fathers had hoped to forestall the development of political parties. How quaint that notion seems today! [Not much foresight there.] With the advent of parties, however, partisans have realized it’s very important to count all those individuals who share their political alignment…and maybe throw a few tacks on the road of those trying to tote up people of different persuasion.

So, including the homeless in the count adds members of Congress from some states, and (in a zero-sum game), takes away Representatives from others. Similarly, just which homeless count we use tweaks those figures, and that tweak might result down the road in one more Republican and one less Democrat, or vice versa, in one or more states.

Then there’s the question of breaking those folks into individual Congressional districts. This task has been left up to the respective state legislatures. It’s easy to imagine that the shapes of districts would be irregular, maybe even highly variable, not just from state to state but within states. After all, human settlements are affected by terrain, watersheds, historical accident, etc. But what the Founding Fathers didn’t see coming was the extent to which state legislators of whichever party was in power would feel free to, in fact delight in, producing distorted districts in order to preserve their political gains and maximize their future political opportunities. We call this gerrymandering, and we owe the term to Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts who inspired the name by creating a district in Boston having a shape evocative of a salamander. And this in 1812! It took only a handful of election cycles and three census counts to reach this point. Where are we today? For comparison, check out these twenty worst present-day offenders, from all over the country. They’re exquisite constructs.

Forget those accusations traded in the political ads. Our elected representatives, of all parties, are not dummies, no matter what we hear from their enemies; they’re extremely intelligent! They can do the sums, and see these implications, and, true to the Founding Fathers’ vision, they act in self-interest, for themselves and the folks who voted them in.

Despite such examples, the United States and its citizens have by and large done well for more than two centuries. But the result has not been entirely pretty. That’s why some states (California will notably try this in tomorrow’s election) are attempting to depoliticize Congressional districting and redistricting to the extent practicable, on the premise that districts and seats that are not secure for one or the other party but rather in play might yield a more effective political outcomes.

So remember that the results of tomorrow’s elections, including all those state legislative candidates you barely know, will set into motion a chain of events that will alter history forever. They’ll determine the party makeup in the House and the Senate here in Washington. The numbers, and the individuals, will determine whether we act, and how we act, and with regard to which issues, or whether we’ll have government shutdowns, strife, and gridlock.[1] And the same will happen at the state level. Your individual decision matters. Much as that butterfly madly flapping its wings is changing the weather across the world in a few weeks’ time.

And be sure to vote.[2]

[1] And if it’s this latter, take heart! Scholars tell us that Congress is set up not to pass legislation, but to kill bad legislation. Only about 4% of bills become law.

[2] Today we’ve seen what happens when data are gathered by parties whose interests are poles apart and then used by those very same actors to make decisions and formulate policy. In the next post we’ll look at how this same problem can play out in the environmental arena.

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2 Responses to Today’s Twain of thought – and its bearing on tomorrow’s elections.

  1. Jack Hooke says:

    Today’s post, “Getting out the Science Message”, takes optimism to new heights: “Politicians want an actively involved public and insightful journalism as well.”
    Really? While I hope that there are indeed some politicians who feel that way, I would argue that they are a distinct minority. The vast majority seem mainly interested in being elected/reelected. For that larger group, an actively involved public and insightful journalists would be anathema. Why? Because if such a combination existed, they (the politicians) might actually have to reflect upon and speak difficult truths. No longer would it suffice to denounce out-of-control government deficits while steadfastly defending every existing entitlement program, every special-interest tax break, every “necessary” war, every critical educational or environmental program, every jobs program, etc., etc.

    • William Hooke says:

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Jack! You may be right about the optimism. And you’re certainly right about politicians wanting to be elected and re-elected. If they don’t make that their priority, they fall by the wayside. A question. Do you think, though, that politicians and business leaders, despite the stereotype, both have a “name any tune and I’ll play it” approach? By that I mean that once they know what the electorate want, whatever that may be, from their district, or their state, or their country, will they cater to that desire? If that’s the case, then if/when we the electorate get more responsible, mightn’t they change course in response? In Great Britain, where the public has more of an expectation that the British government will balance the budget, the Parliament MP’s find it easier to argue about “how” rather than “whether,” even as they think about re-election.

      And business leaders, when it comes to environmental regulations, don’t argue against a given regulation so much as they argue for a level playing field. If they have to meet an environmental standard, or worker safety standards, that’s okay, so long as manufacturers in other countries have to do the same.

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