Topic: Government and Politics

Computer-Aided Reporting: Looking Where the Light Is Good

Upshot (New York Times) writer Derek Willis tweeted this morning, “We need to stop doing stories (and maps) with meaningless data.” At the link, a story on Vox charts the poorest members of Congress. It’s based on a Roll Call story published in September.

His main point, I think, is the failure of the data to reliably reflect what it’s supposed to. The disclosures on which these stories rely don’t include the value of homes members own, for example, and information is reported in broad bands, so it’s probably not very accurate and may be wildly inaccurate.

The data is meaningless in another, more important way. Neither story suggests any correlation between wealth (or its absence) and legislators’ behavior or fitness for office. It’s just a look at who has money and who doesn’t—uninformative infotainment. Maybe some readers stack up inferences to draw conclusions about Congress or its members, but this is probably an exercise in confirming one’s biases.

This illustrates a real problem for computer-aided journalism. When the only data available depicts a certain slice of the world, that will skew editorial judgments toward that slice of the world, overweighting its importance in news reporting and commentary.

In my opinion, reporting on public policy suffers just such a skew. There is relatively good data about campaign financing and campaign spending, which makes it easy to report about. The relatively high level of reporting on this area makes it appear more important while the actual behavior of public officials in office—the bills they sponsor, the contents of bills, amendments, votes, and the results for society—goes relatively unreported.

It won’t be the fix for all that ails reporting on public policy, but our Deepbills project makes essential content of legislation available as data. It vastly expands the territory around U.S. federal public policy that computer-aided jounalists can cover. Deepbills data has been picked up various places, but we need more adoption before it will provide all the value it can to a better-informed public.

Update: On Wednesday, the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee will have a hearing on implementation of the DATA Act, which could yet further expand the data available to journalists, and all of us.

U.S. and Russia Must Find Exit to Ukraine Impasse

MOSCOW—The Kremlin was its forbidding worst when I recently visited a dreary, stormy Moscow. Russia is not the Soviet Union, but hopes for the former to develop into a genuinely liberal society have been stillborn.

However, the fact that President Vladimir Putin is an unpleasant autocrat doesn’t change the necessity of Washington and Moscow working together.

Moscow is not threatening any core U.S. interest. Putin’s Ukrainian aggression does not impair fundamental American national interests. There is no indication that Moscow has any ill plans for Europe.

Unfortunately, Washington contributed to the Ukraine imbroglio by foolishly joining Europe in treating Kiev as a geopolitical competition. This allied blunder doesn’t justify Russia’s response, of course, but it precipitated Moscow’s intervention.

Putin demonstrates that even paranoids have enemies. Allied behavior post-Cold War—expanding NATO up to Russia’s border, dismantling Serbia, treating Georgia as a military ally, holding open the possibility of NATO membership for Kiev, and trying to pull Ukraine into Europe’s economic orbit—has consistently ignored or threatened Moscow’s interests.

The result is an economic and political impasse with a risk of military confrontation. Russia’s control in Ukraine will not change unless Moscow suffers decisive military, economic, or political loss.

However, Ukraine’s military is markedly inferior to that of Russia. The U.S. and Europe won’t go to war with nuclear-armed Russia over Ukraine.

While the Kremlin’s unjustified use of force warrants sanctions as temporary punishment, they are counterproductive as permanent policy. The restrictions have hurt the Russian economy, but so far less than the unrelated drop in oil prices.

The Europeans have even less political leverage over Moscow. Russia has moved closer to China, expanding the former’s options. So far Putin’s policy remains popular at home.

Washington and Brussels have no plausible strategy to reverse Moscow’s approach. Even the Obama administration rejects crackpot schemes for military intervention—such as putting American troops into a war zone and daring Moscow to attack.

Non-lethal aid to Kiev wastes scarce American resources. Military assistance would strengthen the Ukrainian armed forces, but the conflict matters far more to Moscow than to the allies, so the former always will spend and risk more to achieve its ends.

Tightening sanctions is another possibility, though historically they have proved to be better at inflicting economic harm than forcing political change. Russia’s economy is likely to withstand, though at potentially high cost, whatever Europe is willing to impose. At the same time the West, too, will suffer economically.

Worst is the economic condition of Ukraine, the epicenter of conflict. The longer the crisis persists, the greater the financial drain Kiev will be for America and Europe.

Unfortunately, Washington and Brussels have no political path to victory. The problem is not just a “frozen conflict” involving Ukraine and separatists, with Kiev broken and bankrupt. The bigger risk is a frozen conflict—essentially a Cold War lite—between Russia and America/Europe.

Which means everyone needs to look for an exit from the current impasse.

Grubergate, the Mini-Series

Cato’s Online Growth Forum

Here are today’s new essays in the Cato Institute’s special online forum on reviving growth:

1. Richard Florida says that cities are our future.

2. Megan McArdle takes aim at regulatory complexity.

3. Dane Stangler wants more immigration and better teachers.

4. Scott Winship focuses on expanding opportunity for the disadvantaged.

5. Michael Mandel calls for hacking the regulatory state.

6. Brad DeLong waves his magic wand three times.

Improve Government: Repeal Aid to States

James L. Buckley’s new book, Saving Congress from Itself, examines federal aid-to-state programs. The federal government spends more than $600 billion a year on 1,100 such programs for education, welfare, and many other state and local activities.

The whole system is a damaging mess, and Buckley proposes in his book that Congress “eliminate all federal grants-in-aid to state and local governments.” That action would “have a profound effect on how we govern ourselves.” A profoundly positive effect, that is, which is a bold claim, but I’ve come to the same conclusion in my writings on the aid system (here, here, and here).   

Buckley’s analysis is grounded in his distinguished career as a U.S. senator from New York, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and a high-level Reagan administration official. He argues that repealing aid-to-state programs would free the federal government to focus on truly national matters, put the government on sounder financial footing, and improve the ability of states to increase the quality and efficiency of their own programs.

Buckley’s book is a fairly quick read at 95 pages, but he hits the key legal and practical problems with aid to the states. Buckley believes, as I do, that the aid system is a hidden, or at least underexamined, factor steadily corroding the quality of American governance, particularly since the aid expansion of the 1960s. He notes, for example: “Congress’s current dysfunction is rooted in its assumption, over the years, of more responsibilities than it can handle. As a result, its members now live a treadmill existence that no longer allows them time to study, learn, and think things through. Instead, they substitute political reflex for thought.”

Federal aid is not the free lunch that state governments think it is. Nonetheless, a free lunch is available to you this Monday: please join James Buckley, Roger Pilon, and me at a Capitol Hill forum on December 1 to discuss the book. Details are here.

DATA Act Implementation

The administration is working to implement the DATA Act, which, if implemented well, could produce a sea-change in government transparency, and a shift of power from government insiders to the people.

Yesterday, I submitted to the Treasury Department’s Fiscal Service our 2012 “Grading the Government’s Data Publication Practices” study, along with the following comment, which notes the glaring absence of a machine-readable government organization chart.

In partial response to the notice, I’m pleased to submit the attached study, which may assist your inquiry.

Over several years, I have been studying transparency, which remains largely undelivered because it has been undefined.

In “Grading the Government’s Data Publication Practices,” you’ll find the results of that study. Transparency is produced by data that comes from an authoritative source, data that is complete, that is machine-discoverable, and that is machine-readable. When good data publication conditions obtain, the public and government managers alike, through information services, apps, and websites, will make use of the data to make the government more legible.

The study graded the quality of data publication about key entities in the legislative and budgeting/spending processes. The striking upshot was the absence of good data about a very elemental topic: the organizational units of the federal government. There is no machine-readable organization chart for the U.S. federal government. The absence of a machine-readable government organization chart stifles public and congressional oversight, and it frustrates internal management.

Producing machine-readable data that articulates what the organizational units of the federal government are should be a priority. It is probably one of the easier things to do technically, and it will produce important gains in transparency. Failure to produce and maintain a machine-readable federal government organization chart would also stand out if it is not done early on in DATA Act implementation.

We are currently in the process of re-grading data publication in the areas covered by the prior study. In future iterations of the grading study, I look forward to reporting that there is well-organized, complete information about all agencies, bureaus, programs, and projects, and the relationships among them.

Thank you!

Jim Harper

A cynic—and there might be one or two reading this blog!—would say that the government will never make itself transparent. Well, it certainly won’t if you don’t ask it to…

Will the Third Time Be the Charm as the Supreme Court Again Takes Up a Controversial Theory of Racial “Discrimination”?

Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act, also known as the Fair Housing Act (FHA), makes it illegal to deny someone housing on the basis of race and other protected characteristics. Applicable to governments, private entities, and individuals, the FHA prohibits racially discriminatory practices in most if not all transactions relating to housing.

For example, a landlord can’t refuse to rent an apartment to an otherwise qualified tenant, solely on the basis of race. Similarly, banks and credit unions can’t take a borrower’s race into account when deciding whether and on what terms to extend credit for the purpose of buying a home.

While it’s clear that the FHA bars such discriminatory intent, it remains an open question whether it covers claims of “disparate impact,” where a neutral policy disproportionately harms members of the protected class. Under this theory, a landlord insisting that all applicants pass a credit check could be held liable if it turns out that applicants from one protected group are disproportionately unlikely to have a sufficiently high credit score. That landlord would be held liable even though a satisfactory credit score is required of all potential tenants, regardless of race, and the landlord’s only intent was the (perfectly legal) desire to avoid tenants who would get behind on their rent—not to deny housing to any particular group.

In the decades since the FHA was passed, disparate impact has been used by the government and private litigants to exact tens of millions of dollars in fines and settlements from banks and developers whose facially neutral policies were alleged to have excluded members of a protected class from the housing market. The problem is that unlike with other anti-discrimination laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act—which expressly prohibits policies that have a disparate impact—the text of the FHA explicitly forbids only intentional discrimination.