Thursday, April 1, 2010

Beggar thy neighbor day

Except for those who have been living under a rock, almost any American knows that today is the Census enumeration day, as provided by Article I of the Constitution. At $14 billion, it will be the most expensive Census in history, more than double that of the 2000 census. Of that, $340 million is being spent on advertising and other promotional efforts, including a $2.5 million Super Bowl ad.

As a social scientist, I certainly sympathize with the desire to make the Census as accurate as possible. (Lacking a $14 billion research budget, we academics normally accept a certain amount of imprecision as unavoidable.) And, given that Democrats are in control of two branches of government — and the assumption that uncounted residents are disproportionately in Democrat-leaning districts — it was inevitable that Obama would do everything it could to count every last person.

However, the advertising message has emphasized a “beggar thy neighbor” approach: that people should respond in their narrow parochial interests to win a zero-sum allocation of Federal tax dollars. After dissecting the quirky ad scripts, Advertising Age went straight to the hart of the problem.

There's one issue with the campaign that confounds us, too -- maybe not so glaring, but ultimately more serious. Namely: the premise. In more than 100 pieces of communication in 28 languages, the campaign tells people to fill out the census form because it could mean increased funding for their communities. "We can't move forward till you mail it back."

Oh, really? That proposition is a half truth. The federal-budget allocation is a zero sum game. Yes, the census largely determines who gets more money. It equally determines who gets less money. To present it as unlocking better roads and smaller classrooms for all is just dishonest. Even state lotteries are more candid. What they say is, "You've gotta play to win."
Nothing in the Census contributes to economic growth — or even the availability of funds to disperse to the local governments. It’s just about saying “I want mine, and the government should give it to me” — a perfect metaphor for efforts to increase Nanny State dependency.

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