The origins of “blinding the beast”

It goes back to Reagan, says a correspondent. But it’s worse now, say I.

A reader writes:

Actually, the strategy of deliberately destroying data-collection capacity to avoid learning inconvenient facts dates to the earliest days (February 1981) of the first Reagan administration. The first target was the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

We have gone from the 1970s, when the US was acknowledged to have the best statistics-gathering in the world to a situation where, I’m told, we are close to the worst amongst developed countries.

I have long thought that the numbers produced by the Fed under the Great Greenspan &#8212 especially the inflation figures &#8212 had an amazing correlation to the neo-conservative world view of the period in which the report appeared.

It shocks me to see the Reaganauts portrayed as a “responsible” lot compared to the Bushaviks of George III. So far as I can tell, we’ve been “governed” by one long faith-based initiative, where confidence lay in Super Man and facts were kryptonite.

I agree with my correspondent that “blinding the beast” had roots in the Reagan Administration. For that matter, the Nixon Administration was hardly free of it. But my impression, and the impression of my friends who have spent more time in Washington, and in or around the bureaucracies, than I have is that the problem is much worse now than it was under Reagan, as it was much worse under Reagan than under Nixon.

Think of it this way: Nixon didn’t want to look at the facts; Reagan averted his eyes to avoid seeing the facts; Bush has had his eyelids sewn shut.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

11 thoughts on “The origins of “blinding the beast””

  1. Bredan,
    In some cases, the Democrats have fought the good fight and gone down. The most notable example of that was the 2000 Census. The Bureau was prepared to perform the first verifiably accurate Census in the nation's history. Statisticians at Census have been conducting research on methods to alleviate the undercount problem, and were ready (after extensive field testing) to put it into action in 2000.
    The Republicans blocked it, by focussing on a false dichotomy based on suspect etymology. The Constitution calls for an enumeration, and they claimed that an enumeration requires direct counting of noses, as it were. That (and other destructive episodes) has cost the government the services of a number of very talented statisticians.
    Another place the Bushies have monkeyed with the system is in the timing of data releases. Since the 1960s, the results of Annual Social and Economic Supplement of the Current Population Survey were released in mid- to late- September. In 2004, the Bushies made a snap decision to release the report in late August. The news in the report was not good for the Administration, so they wanted it released when people weren't paying attention. Since then, the report has been released in late August. I guess I will give them a couple of points for not being completely unsubtle.

  2. This blatant manipulation or suppression of statistics most certainly does go back to Nixon, who saw to it that good economic numbers always came out at appropriate times to help Republican candidates. The numbes would be revised after the elections, of course, with the press carefully averting its eyes.
    I suppose this practice could be said to be the grandchild of Joe McCarthy's fictitious lists of communists, and probably descendants of even earlier distortions by Republicans. When you can't tell the voters the truth about what you are up to, the only thing left is lies.

  3. Do you have any reason to suppose that "enumeration" means "counting" is suspect etymology, beyond the fact that it's inconvenient if the Constitution doesn't permit the census to be an estimate instead of a count? I am, in fact, unaware of any other basis for considering this interpretation "suspect".
    Naturally, if you've got evidence that "enumeration" was routinely used in the sense of "estimate" back in the 1700's, that would be highly relevant.
    Avoiding learning things which might enable or force actions you don't want, is a time honored tactic, used inside and outside of government by people of all ideological stripes.
    Note, for instance, the pro-choice movement's opposition to laws requiring detailed reporting on abortions. Or parental notification.
    And, of course, we in the 2nd amendment community have always opposed gun registration on the basis that you can't confiscate firearms if you don't know who owns them.
    Blinding the beast is a neutral tactic, employed for good and evil. Noting that somebody is employing it is no substitute arguing the merits of the policy the beast is being blinded in order to obstruct.

  4. I've spent years looking for good statistics on the reasons for late term abortions. Is there some reason those aren't maintained like regular medical statistics?

  5. Sebastian,
    I don't know if late-term abortions are the same thing as partial-birth abortions, but I do know that partial-birth abortions are highly, highly anomalous, and are an emergency procedure in the wake of a severe accident, often for the sake of saving a mother's life, and without her consent. Partial-birth abortion was just a big, convenient scare tactic that was Roved onto the world, in order to slowly-but-surely encroach upon reproductive rights.
    Sometimes, it is done for this rare genetic abnormality. It's a kind of trisomy, but not Down Syndrome (that's Trisomy 21). There is a lot of suffering for the child, and the child rarely lives to age 5. It's usually more like 2-3 years old. In this case, it is of the mother's own volition.
    I would guess that there isn't a lot of public knowledge because part of the Roe decision was the right to privacy.

  6. "but I do know that"
    It's actually pretty impressive being able to "know" all that, when the records Sebastian is talking about really aren't being kept. You're psychic, perhaps? Or maybe you're using "know" in some religious sense.
    This is a great example of blinding the beast; The pro-choice movement goes to court to prevent the collection of the very records which might let us know whether claims such as your's about late term abortions are really true. And so guarantees that it need never fear it's claims being proven false.

  7. I'm waiting for my little weenie to grow just another inch. Then I can start sticking into pigs. Wheeeeee!

  8. Brett, Sebastian, I think you're suggesting a false moral equivalence. Mark has shown reason to believe in *massive* degradation of data collection for the purposes of your party, the GOP.

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