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An Economist Who Doesn’t Want More Data? UCalgary Called, they Want their Degree Back.

July 8, 2010

Witness Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the first non-lawyer to lead this great nation since Lester B. Pearson. Bachelors and Masters degrees in Economics from the fabled University of … Calgary. He dropped out of UofT. And Witness Tony Clement, proud UofT graduate in Political Science and Law and one of the architects of Mike Harris’ Common Sense Revolution.

They have some Common Sense changes for how Statistics Canada collects census data every four years: in short, “Don’t worry about it too much, get whatever data you can, but quite being so pushy about it”.  That’s right, the Conservative cabinet has modified the rules for StatsCan so that the long form census, which is sent out to a random 20% of the population and contains much more detailed questions, will no longer be mandatory.  In case you weren’t aware, not filling out your census forms can carry a fine and if you’re really persistent can even get you jail time.  People say fewer Canadians will fill out the long forms if they are not mandatory.

From the Globe and Mail:

Industry Minister Tony Clement calls the fears “overwrought.” His department has decided the long-form survey will now be sent to 30 per cent of the population instead of the current 20, meaning more people may actually fill them out without “coercion of the state,” he said.

“I think you’ll have a much more honest and enthusiastic response than you would under the threat of fines or jail times to elicit a response,” he told The Globe Wednesday night. “I would question the validity of that.”

Well, that’s alright then.  I’m sure there will be no problem if we just increase the number of people getting a voluntary census, we’ll just hope it all works out.  Did you even talk to the Prime Minister about this?  I really want to know.  Because if you ever talk to an economist and say the words “data” and “less” their ears will perk up and they’ll say “well, we’d always like more data of course”.

But it seems Clement’s ‘common sense’ focussed brain doesn’t see that.  He’s more worried about the ‘coercion of the state’ than continuing a very important stream of information that has been unbroken since 1871.  In order to save some people the horror of one hour filling out a form once or twice in their lifetime when they are randomly selected he’s willing to throw all statistical rigour out the window.

So here’s two, specific problems with his ‘logic’:

  1. Sampling Bias: If you had passed this idea past the Prime Minister, Mr. Economist would have pointed out that you cannot collect data on a voluntary, self selecting basis. For a collection of data to be valid and useful (what we would call nonbiased) you need to insure that it was collected in a non-biased way.  That means everyone that the data is supposed to cover needs to have an equal number of randomly selected data points.  In this case, we want data about the entire population, so we need to randomly send it out to a large sample of that population and everyone has to fill it out. If some group of people don’t fill it out,  then you can’t just send out more and hope it will work out.  You’ll be undersampling certain groups of people.  Unless you happen to be lucky and the people who don’t fill it out are completely randomly distributed, you’re going to screw up the data.  If there is any common thread amongst people who don’t fill it out (like they work two jobs and have no time; they can’t read well; they don’t speak english well; they’re paranoid conservative whiners who don’t trust government to do anything yet want all of its services…), then you’re screwed.  Statistically, the data will be useless. That’s right, it won’t ‘ok’ or ‘slightly not as good as before but with a larger sample’.  It will be completely useless. You are letting the subjects of a study determine whether they want to participate on their own preferences and not controlling for it.  That’s just bad data gathering and I’m sure the people at StatsCan will tell you that.
  2. Coercion of the State: I don’t want to be coerced by the state. We have enumerable laws to prevent this and our entire form of government is structured too prevent government from getting to involved in running our lives. But, there are four major things the Canadian government can require you to do as a Canadian citizen beyond just not breaking any laws. Mr. Lawyer Clement should know this, to wit:
    1. Paying your taxes
    2. Defending your country in a time a war
    3. Jury duty
    4. Filling out the national census – no kidding, its that important. The government can’t know how many of us there are, what we’re doing, what we need, if they don’t know anything about us.  And if you make filling out detailed information voluntary they will know exactly nothing about us. Refer back to point 1.

As many have pointed out, census data is actually used a great deal by businesses, charity organizations, government departments, scientific researchers and lots of other people.  No one else can collect data on this scale and at this quality.  The census is the gold standard of what social, statistical data is. Removing that standard will undermine countless other studies that rely on the census to cross validate and provide a ‘sanity check’ that their results are reasonable.

Nations have been collecting census data for thousands of years and in the past centuries collecting ever more detailed data for analysis has heralded the advancement of Western civilization and was one of the primary initial motivations for the development of computers in the 1800’s.  So to turn around and say all that is unimportant, to say that a detailed, statistically sounds census is not a pillar of our civilization is either disingenuous or naive.

This government has demonstrated time and time again that they have no respect for everything our society has achieved, for the tradition of Canadian government. They disrespect the constitution by poisoning political discourse with their parliamentary games, paritsan attacks and attemp to cut party funding. They diminish the role of the Governor General by turning them into a puppet.  They tarnish our international reputation by resisting environmental regulations.  They waste opportunities for our future by their loyalty to the oil industry and not using our economic advantages to build a green technology revolution that will help Canada navigate the economy in the 21st Century.  They hurt families, the poor, drug addicts and minorities with their cutting of funding for social services and charities while they simultanesouly swander our budget surpluses with tax cuts.

In short, the Conservative party does not respect what Canada is and they want to make it into something else.  Now this attempt to change the very data that our society uses to measures how it is doing shows this plainly.  What do you usually think of a store owner that asks everyone pays cash and gives no receipts? I think they’ll trying to avoid paying taxes.  They are avoiding collecting data that could incriminate them.  Removing detailed census data will have the same effect.  The Conservatives are essentially throwing the receipts for society out the window saying ‘trust us, it will all be fine, we don’t need that data’.

Or maybe Mr. Clement simply didn’t pass it by the economist down the hall and it will all be reversed momentarily.  Not likely.

“Mr. Prime Minister, its the University of Calgary on line two…”



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