On Campus

Why census data should be free

The census debate keeps going and going and ...

Over at Worthwhile Canadian Initiative, Stephen Gordon offers an argument why databases are prone to market failure. From a market standpoint, it is inefficient for multiple firms to generate essentially the same data: “It’s more efficient to simply have one database and allow access to multiple users.” Therefore, “the census is a natural monopoly.” Ideally, this particular monopoly would operate as a “pure public good,” universally accessible and free: “Usually, we’d try to set price equal to marginal cost. In this case, the marginal cost of providing access to a database is essentially zero: once it is set up, maintenance costs are trivial.”

But unlike census data in the United States, Statistics Canada charges a fee, at least for the complex data sought by businesses and academics, and there is a significant impact on scholarship: “A Canadian professor who works at a publicly-funded university must obtain research grants from publicly-funded institution in order to pay for data – that have already been collected! – from yet another government agency. Too often, the game ends with the researcher abandoning the project or choosing to use US data instead.”

So if the cost of census data, as Statistics Canada is responsible for generating 20 per cent of its own revenue, is a deterrent to using Canadian data, then combining that deterrent with the fact that the long form census will no longer be voluntary “things will get much, much worse.”

Meanwhile, Aaron Wherry, who has chronicled every turn of the great census debate, has posted the National Citizens Coalition’s response to those who would be critical of the government’s decision to scrap the census long form. Basically people who rely on Statistics Canada for data are freeloaders: “It is nice to receive free statistics at the expense of taxpayers, but our government should not be compelling this cooperation with the threat of jail time nor should we be bankrolling the whole endeavour.”

This is probably a little late in the census debacle to bring this up, but all this reminds me of a theory one of my professors from the University of Manitoba developed, called something like the hot dog cart theory of politics. I always figured he was joking, at least a little. But the theory goes something like this: in every election, camera crews, in search of hapless citizens to give their view from the street, will always be able to corner hot dog vendors. Being behind a cart, their livelihood, they have nowhere to go, so they give their opinion.

Making the long form census voluntary, it seems, would be like relying on data taken solely from hot dog vendors and then trying to say it is representative of the whole country.