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Research Cuts Are Akin to Eating Seed Corn

First, a sad note. Peter David, the Lexington columnist for the Economist and one of the best journalists (and nicest human beings) I have ever met, died tragically in a car accident last week.

Peter’s observations on American politics were more acute and insightful than most American experts. He had a grasp of our culture and system and a love for our society that shone through in his writings. I am heartbroken at this loss.

On to subjects Peter and I discussed at length in recent weeks and months: the dysfunction in our politics.

We saw more stark examples last week. In the House, an amendment from Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) excised funding for political science research from the National Science Foundation.

But even more significant was the House vote to eliminate the annual American Community Survey and the Economic Census to provide basic information on the state of businesses and industries in the country and data used for generating quarterly gross domestic product estimates.

If ever we need evidence of ideology run rampant, these actions become exhibit A. Learning about the population and about the economy are fundamental for a society to understand where it has been and where it is going, for industries to plan their future investments and for the country to be prepared for wars and other exigencies. The first census taken after the Constitution was enacted included questions designed to pinpoint the number of able-bodied males older than 16 to be able to assess preparedness for conflicts and for the workforce.

The ACS is a critical source of data for businesses, industries, manufacturers, homebuilders, retail stores, local governments and countless others to understand local labor markets, housing conditions, neighborhood characteristics and other dynamics in order to plan and carry out their business decisions and investments.

It is a tool used to measure traffic patterns, income and poverty conditions and a panoply of other information — crucial to the private sector and to state and local governments. Law enforcement relies on it to track crime and neighborhood characteristics; emergency planners use it for natural disaster planning and response.

The questions asked by the ACS are vetted by Congress, and strict privacy controls are in place. The economic pluses of the survey are huge and obvious; it will constrain our economy significantly if we do away with it, and it will also make the task of law enforcement and traffic control, among other things, much more difficult.

The Economic Census director noted that “the 2012 Economic Census provides comprehensive information on the health of over 25 million businesses and 1,100 industries. It provides detailed industry and geographic source data for generating quarterly GDP estimates. The economic census is also the benchmark for measures of productivity, producer prices, and many of the nation’s principal economic indicators. … We have already printed 7.5 million forms, and are preparing the October mailing and internet data collection infrastructure. Canceling the 2012 Economic Census now wastes $226 million already expended on preparatory activities.”

In their zeal to cut domestic discretionary spending to save every dollar of defense appropriations and to avoid a dime in tax increases on the highest earners (while imposing a tax increase, via a cut in the child tax credit, on others), House Republicans have begun a major effort to eliminate the nation’s seed corn, the fundamentals for building and growing the economy. The “No-Nothings” are on the rise.

That brings us to the elimination of NSF funding for political science, which includes money for the essential scholarly building block for studying public opinion, the National Election Study. I have no grants from NSF. I retain my interest in solid political science research, but my objections to the Flake amendment are more fundamental than quibbles over particular studies, or even the worth to the society of this research at all, or of Flake’s argument that rich universities, where most of the scholars who get NSF grants reside, can fund the work themselves.

Rather, the key question here is an intrusive government, via a set of politicians, throwing grenades into a carefully designed and balanced peer-review process for scientists, physical and social, to determine what research benefits society enough to use some taxpayer funds.

This truly is a slippery slope — political science one day, climate research the next, biological research after that and so on, depending on the ideology and demagogic capacity of the majorities in Congress at any given time.

Flake is more intellectually honest in his desire to cut spending and cut deficits than many of his colleagues. But this is a truly misguided step toward ham-handed government interference in science.

I can’t end without mentioning the Senate, which decided stupidity should not be limited to the House.

After the salutary effort at compromise involving House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) resulted in a rare bipartisan vote in the House to fund the Export-Import Bank, the Senate stopped the effort in its tracks on a filibuster, as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) caved to the shrill demands of Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) yet again.

I suppose I shouldn’t complain; all  of these actions are going to help sales of my new book with Tom Mann. But I would gladly give up some sales in return for some sanity on Capitol Hill.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.