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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Head of Statistics Canada Resigns!

It's not often that a senior bureaucrats resigns willing. It's even less often that they do so as a matter of principle. This is exactly what Munir Sheikh, head of Statistics Canada, has done today. Albeit he resigned in deference to a bad principle, but hey, good enough for government work:

There has also been commentary on the advice that Statistics Canada and I gave the government on this subject.

I cannot reveal and comment on this advice because this information is protected under the law. However, the government can make this information public if it so wishes.

I have always honoured my oath and responsibilities as a public servant as well as those specific to the Statistics Act.

I want to take this opportunity to comment on a technical statistical issue which has become the subject of media discussion. This relates to the question of whether a voluntary survey can become a substitute for a mandatory census.

It can not.

Under the circumstances, I have tendered my resignation to the Prime Minister.

Well, thanks for showing up. 

We are entering the summer doldrums and so any news, even the resignation of a statistician, can become big news. Since Industry Minister Tony Clement's decision to make the Census long form voluntary, some three weeks ago, this minor administrative change has evolved into a full scale affair. Google News gives 756 results for "canada census long form." A group of Census lovers has even created a You Tube video. The whole thing is somewhat bizarre. As Colby Cosh noted, scrapping the long form is "not literally among the first 200 policy changes that would be implemented by an intelligent libertarian given plenary power." 

Sure enough, but if you can tweak leviathan, why not tweak leviathan? It's a small battle, but the small battles are often the most revealing. Want to get an idea of how mixed our mixed economy really is? Just look at the long list of organizations that oppose scrapping the mandatory long form. Business, charities, government agencies, municipalities and a long line of ethnic pressure groups. Their dependence on government data is suggestive of their dependence on government itself. They need government data to demand government largesse.

What's fascinating is how the Census Centurions are seeking to defend what is, for many of them, their literal meal ticker. To them the debate over the long-form is not about freedom, but just a matter of statistical accuracy. What the defenders of the mandatory form exhibit is the casual presumption that they have a right to intrude into people's personal lives, and then with nary a pause, to use that data to plan people's lives. Earlier today the Western Standard's Associate Editor, Terrence Watson, participated in a live blog on the Census. I was impressed with this response (at 2:58) from Nik Nanos, a highly regarded pollster:

Not to upset the applecart but perhaps we should discussing the merits of fact-based policy-making versus ideologically based policy-making. After all, if you are driven by ideology, research is not as much of a priority. There's obviously room to mix both but how much is the question.

An individual's personal privacy is regarded not as a right, but as merely an "ideological" position. Libertarians, conservatives and classical liberals are often branded as "ideological," as if our positions were something akin to Catholic dogma, a set of arbitrary rules decreed by supernatural instinct. There is no conflict between a "fact-based" policy and an ideological policy, unless your ideology isn't based on facts. 

Those who accuse others of being ideological are, usually, throwing stones while living in very big glass houses. It is an ideological position to believe that the state has a right to monitor the private lives of its citizens, and to use that data as it sees fit for the "public interest." While such a position has many variants, they can all be subsumed into one word: statism. Statism is itself the product of moral collectivism. 

Practical men, such as pollsters, usually dismiss such terms as "collectivism" and "individualism" as floating abstractions, the sort of thing graduate students discuss, not adults in the real world. I'm not a fan of John Maynard Keynes, but he often made, within fairly narrow contexts, many astute observations. His best was this one: "Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist." To which I would correct by replacing economist with philosopher. The defenders of the mandatory long-form presume that the individual's rights extend no farther than the needs of the collective, be that the whole of Canada or merely whatever socio-economic or ethnic group they belong to. This is an ideology with a pedigree at least as old as Plato.

We are not so terribly sorry that the end of the long-form, however disingenuous were the Minister's motives in ending it, has made made the life of government statisticians that much harder. That's the breaks. Demanding that police officers obtain warrants before entering private dwellings, without permission, is a hardship for police officers. Expecting the Prime Minister of Canada to answer, or at least evade with some skill, embarrassing questions in the House of Commons is a hardship, for the Prime Minister. Believing that politicians should seek election for public office is a hardship, for the politician. The fact that something is hard for a public servant is neither here nor there. It is their job.

The government works for us, not the other way around. It's sole legitimate function is to defend our rights. If in protecting those rights it must encounter some bother, well, tough. 'Tis a pity that a voluntary Census will make things harder for Statistics Canada - though the Scandinavian countries ditched their Census years ago without a noticeable collapse in law and order. Simply put, our rights are more important that their convenience.

The Shotgun Census Page

Posted by Richard Anderson on July 21, 2010 | Permalink


Will someone please tell me why everyone is up in arms over this? Presumably the retiring of the long form is a victory for privacy, so what exactly is the problem?

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2010-07-21 8:13:54 PM

Shane, I think you already stated the reason elsewhere. It is because it is an initiative by the present government as opposed to the Liberals. The chattering class continues trying to make an issue out of a non issue. At least it is a non issue for the majority of Canadians in the sense that they are pleased that the invasive long form is no longer mandatory by force of law.

Posted by: Alain | 2010-07-21 8:50:35 PM

Just one more thing. I would dearly love to see the opposition force an election over this non issue, for they will be in for yet another rude awaking.

Posted by: Alain | 2010-07-21 9:09:25 PM

If I may offer an observation - a ten paragraph post should not end with a sentence that begins "simply put".

Posted by: Kate | 2010-07-21 10:35:45 PM

I work for StatCan. Making the long form census not mandatory is very dangerous for our country as it will no longer be reliable or accurate. I have to beg people to participate in voluntary surveys. They are often rushed and don't want to do them. Voluntary surveys are also more costly. I will actually make more money and have more work with a voluntary household survey (more telephone calls and/or visits) as compared to a mandatory one. But I believe making the long form census voluntary is morally wrong.

How are government, business, researchers, etc. supposed to get accurate information about Canada, provinces, communities if certain types of people do not participate.

How is government supposed to serve us when it doesn't know who we are?

Posted by: Bob Peloquin | 2010-07-21 11:51:09 PM

"Scandinavian countries don’t have a census, but every movement their people make is registered" (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/canadas-census-challenges-arent-unique/article1647907/). I don't imagine that would be your preferred solution.

Posted by: Morgan | 2010-07-22 5:01:59 AM

If it helps Kate, it was originally a twenty paragraph post.

Posted by: Publius | 2010-07-22 5:19:33 AM

An aspect of this issue that has not really been addressed is the assumption that the compulsory long-form census is, in fact, accurate. Large numbers of people who receive it do not, in fact, fill it out. In response to such non-compliance, the government hires a small army of those students who didn't get jobs at Starbucks or didn't get into a subsidized French program to contact the laggards. Occasionally those they contact go along and fill out the form. More often than not, however, they either tell the student to go away or, being nice, as Canadians tend to be, tell the student to fill it out for them. The current census system is a major make-work project for both permanent employees at StatsCan and a summer jobs program for youth.

Your post, however, makes a key point: just consider the groups most "outraged" by the decision, and you know in your heart that Mr Clement has made the right decision.

Posted by: Roseberry | 2010-07-22 5:34:44 AM

Yes, Alain, but that doesn't really explain why it's become such a media furore. To listen the rustling of the gossip you'd think this was another Adscam. God help us if the Tories decide to create some new parkland!

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2010-07-22 6:40:41 AM

Bob, a census of some form is clearly necessary. However, I really don't think Ottawa needs to know how many bathtubs I have.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2010-07-22 6:41:07 AM

"But I believe making the long form census voluntary is morally wrong."

What outrageous typically collectivist nonsense. Then it must be "morally right" to force people to hand over detailed personal information about themselves and their family under threat of fines and/or jail terms? That is precisely what is immoral about a mandatory census.

What this is all about is the fact that the central planners are distraught they won't be able to centrally plan properly without a mandatory census. Hence they and their pals in the MSM have got the whining machine cranked up full blast. I've got news for you lot: mandatory census or not, your efforts at central planning always have been, and always will be, an abject failure.

Posted by: Dennis | 2010-07-22 8:22:33 AM

Dennis, exactly right!

Posted by: TM | 2010-07-22 9:07:24 AM

'the chattering class continue trying to make an issue out of a non issue.'

'This relates to the question of whether a voluntary survey can become a substitute for a mandatory census. It cannot.'

Chief Statistician Munir Sheikh, who recently resigned.

Munir Sheikh has earned a Master's Degree in Economics and a PhD in Economics.

Pray Tell Alain, what is your background in Economics?

Or do you rely on 'feelings?'

Kinda like 'feelings' that CRAP'er Justice Minister Nicholson had when asked to provide proof that CRAPer Bill C 15, Mandatory Minimum Prison Sentencing had ANY positive effect on reducing crime.

CRAPer Nicholson had Nada, Nil, Zilch proof that in fact Mandatory Minimum Prison Sentencing reduces crime.

Therefore Alain, one can suppose that you've got your Rush Limbaugh approved, 80mg Oxycontin dosage dialed in a little too high. Moderation mon ami, Moderation.

Yowser, yowser. Just in from Stats Can.

CRAPer Vic Toews, nappie changing Vic Toews, can't be happy with the recent news that Crime Rates continue to decrease in Canada.

Heck, him and the Revlon wearing Minority PM want to spend @10 Billion $$ incarcerating more Canadians in a USA imported For Profit Prison Scheme.

Dang, the facts just keep getting in the way for the CRAPers and their Cabal of extreme evangelicals.

Perhaps their old white man in the sky, blue eyed and aqualine nosed, is gonna come down and make everybody feel high, high, high!

A Puritanical Prohibitionist posits:

' to listen to the rustlings of gossip you'd think this was another Adscam.'

Or Lyin' Brian Mulroney pocketing @ 2.5 million Canadian Taxpayer $$ after lying under oath.

Can you feel the CRAPer Rapture??

'Although it is not true that all Conservatives are stupid, it is true that most stupid people are Conservative.

'I get high with a little help from my friends.'

Stephen Harper.

Posted by: jeff franklin | 2010-07-22 10:13:37 AM

Maybe Bob Peloquin can help census cda , put in a mandatory question, that will help them figure out how many prisons they need to build ,with there new mandatory minimum law.

Posted by: don b | 2010-07-22 10:42:44 AM

Jeff, if you are trying to be insulting and rude then keep going. If you are trying to actually debate or persuade then grow up.

Posted by: TM | 2010-07-22 11:17:05 AM

To me, Munir Sheikh is a manipulator. His only credibility is in commenting on the amount of data he might get and it's statistical reliability. He has no credibility on whether or not it SHOULD be collected. For that, as free individuals, we are the best judge.

Munir Sheikh took his parting shot for effect and he is free to do so. But he is far from a hero. He is an unemployed idiot.

Posted by: TM | 2010-07-22 11:22:54 AM

Thank you Roseberry for point out what should even be obvious to the chattering class; that using the law to force people to respond does not ensure accurate information. It only means that the bureaucrats get a response to each question. Nothing to do with whether it is truth or fiction.

Posted by: Alain | 2010-07-22 11:30:58 AM

Morgan: "Scandinavian countries don’t have a census, but every movement their people make is registered" (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/canadas-census-challenges-arent-unique/article1647907/). I don't imagine that would be your preferred solution."

So how is this different from the use of your social security number or your health care registration number?
Not only are you tracked by government agencies whose services you use here in Canada, you are also tracked by the use of credit cards, debit cards, and reward plans for shopping, just to name a few sources of your personal info.
I would much prefer that the government quit supplying my demographic information for free to rent seekers who burn up my tax dollars for their own agendas.

Posted by: Ed Ellison | 2010-07-22 11:32:24 AM

Excellent point, Alain. Stats Can measures success by the sheer number of responses it can obtain, not by analyzing the quality or reliability of those responses. It's kind of like industries in the Soviet Union that measured success according to sheer tonnage of output. The output was often unusable or of terrible quality, but it served the purpose of keeping bean counters in the Kremlin happy.

As an alternative, why not pay people for filling out the census? Try using a much smaller sample, but give each respondent a gift certificate or cash. You'd be amazed at how many people would be only too happy to volunteer their information then.

Posted by: Dennis | 2010-07-22 1:21:18 PM

Dennis, actually the credit goes to Roseberry for pointing it out first. I recall my irritation at receiving those bloody long forms, along with yet another one for agriculture and being hounded to death to provide answers. The result was that my religion changed each time along with my ethnic group and lots of other things. The bureaucrats demanded answers and I gave them BS. So I challenge the chattering class to provide evidence that keeping it mandatory provides more accurate data. They cannot, since it does not.

Posted by: Alain | 2010-07-22 1:49:26 PM

I worked on the 2006 census in an area with about 2000 dwellings. I had no more than 15 initial refusals. They consisted of households who received both short and long forms. By the end, there were only 3 refusals left. I explained to people how the information was used, confidentiality, that is it vital for our country to operate properly and that it is a non-partisan way of evaluating society. Of the three that were left, my supervisor got two of them done fairly quickly and the other after having a serious talk with the resident. No charges were laid, no fines and nobody got hurt. The data was collected only for statistical purposes. StatCan is not allowed to share it's non-statistically released info with police, CSIS, other government departments. We are not allowed to release information that could identify an individual, household or family.

Unfortunately Tony Clement and the Prime Minister are not telling the truth about how important it is to have a mandatory long-form census.

Mr. Sheikh is 100% correct in saying that a voluntary survey cannot be a replacement for a mandatory census. I am so happy that he stood up for Canadians and told the truth. StatCan has had a good reputation and it is sad that it may not be the case due a cabinet minister (actually the PM) making a very stupid decision.

Posted by: Bob Peloquin | 2010-07-23 1:57:19 AM

But doesn't your experience, Bob, suggest that the mandatory element isn't really necessary?

Posted by: Publius | 2010-07-23 5:26:38 AM

If it is decided to do away with the census that would be fine, there are alternatives as you mentioned. But without overhauling the system of data collection and only accepting forms filled by volunteers will be a big waste of money. The government has a sorry record of financial management and this just highlights it.

Posted by: D. Archibald | 2010-07-23 8:35:19 AM

Very good question Publius.

There is a huge difference when the introductory letter or introduction of the survey (or census for that matter) by the interviewer states whether it is mandatory or voluntary.

I rarely have problems when working on the Labour Force Survey where participation in mandatory by law. Some people don't want to tell me their income but we generally don't have a problem if they refuse to answer that question. Not many refuse. But we do want people to answer whether or not they are working, retired, unemployed, etc.. Otherwise how are we supposed to track the state of the economy accurately and fairly?

As for voluntary surveys, I have no problem getting about a third of them done. Another third I have to beg to get it done and it becomes very costly and time consuming. I do make more money on voluntary surveys because of having to try many times. Finally, of the final third of people, most refuse to participate or just keep saying they don't have time, won't do it because they don't have to and this becomes costly as well. The voluntary surveys I conduct tend to be rushed, uncomfortable and difficult as compared to the mandatory ones.

I would say the results from mandatory surveys and censuses are used and supported by more conservative type economic people. I don't know what Harper and Clement are thinking.

Posted by: Bob Peloquin | 2010-07-23 12:55:52 PM

Bob, I am still waiting for you to produce evidence that the information collected by force of law is accurate. The whole argument for maintaining the mandatory system is that the country needs all this information and that it be accurate.

Posted by: Alain | 2010-07-23 3:21:57 PM

How accurate the results are is irrelevant. It's none of their damn business in the first place.

And a big boo hoo to Bob if he feels "uncomfortable" or "rushed" doing voluntary surveys. That's hardly a just rational for putting a gun against someones head to get them to answer some dumb questions.

Posted by: Farmer Joe | 2010-07-23 4:01:49 PM

Farmer Joe, I totally agree with you.

Bob Peloquin, you say:

"and the other after having a serious talk with the resident. No charges were laid, no fines and nobody got hurt."

Do you hear what you are saying? After having a serious talking to? You should have no right to have serious talking to with anyone on behalf of the state.

No charges laid sound nice and happy too but underlying it is the threat of force if these fine people did not give in to the coercion. No charges laid but charges could have been laid.

Posted by: TM | 2010-07-24 12:50:24 PM

So far as I can tell, those in favour of getting rid of the long census form have three basic objections:

    1. It invades privacy.
    2. There's no guarantee the data is accurate.
    3. What is it used for, anyway?

Item 1 is a given; a man’s home is his castle. The issue is whether it is a justified invasion of privacy given the means, the ends, and the extent. Justifying item 1 is therefore contingent on having good answers for 2. and 3. I’ve not seen convincing, or indeed, any substantive arguments for either.

Bob suggests that about a third of the people he canvasses cooperate willingly. Therefore, Statscan would get some data whether the form was mandatory or not. It’s simply a case of the sample size being reduced by two-thirds, and the sample size is already only one in five.

So, instead of calling names, resigning in huffs, or insinuating that Stephen Harper is some sort of latter-day Richard III who smothers princes in their beds, perhaps Bob or some other knowledgeable soul can provide us with real answers to real questions?

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2010-07-24 3:27:03 PM

after having a serious talk with the resident. No charges were laid, no fines ........
Posted by: Bob Peloquin | 2010-07-23 1:57:19 AM

Nothing like power tripping civil servants to brighten a day.

Posted by: peterj | 2010-08-01 4:31:20 PM

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