The senseless census

Census forms are to be mailed back this Friday, leading to a round of news stories and even paid advertising talking about the importance of participating.  If you received a form in the mail, you likely got a nice thick letter beforehand reminding you that it was coming; households that don’t return forms will get a visit from a census taker.   It sounds expensive because it is – especially if you fall into that category of having someone come to your door.  The census is estimated to cost $15 billion.  Since government projects tend to stay on track, that number surely won’t go up.

True enough, that tidy sum doesn’t represent that much of a dent in the budget, but couldn’t the census be organized a little better?  Isn’t it a bit surprising that it won’t be until 2020 – a quarter century after the internet became a big deal – that the census bureau figured out how to harness online communications to help count the citizenry?

Most organizations which rely on grassroots outreach have a tiered system, with online outreach as an initial step.  The first communication can go to a broad audience very cheaply, and those that participate online don’t require additional – and progressively more expensive – means of contact.

As an example, let’s say you are recruiting people for a political cause.  You might first reach out to that broad audience and invite them to sign up online.  Those that do can then be taken off the list.  Next, you might send them a piece of mail or two, then perhaps a live phone call, and finally, if all else fails, send someone to knock on their door.  At each stage in this simple example, you reduce your outreach list so that in successive stages you are spending only as much as you need.

Sending a postcard with a secure website address on it, where people could log on and answer the census questions, would be a good start to the census – and it could save millions in printing and delivery expenses of forms, letters, and other reminders.  It would have the additional benefit of painting a clearer picture of the national technological infrastructure, which would make broadband initiatives more focused.

Security of data is an important concern – and the one most often cited as an excuse for the census’s technological lagging.  Yet the IRS accepts tax return data online – which includes some of the same information.

The idea of an online census may be way off base; if that’s the case, I’d love to hear why.   But online communication is efficient, cheap, and secure – couldn’t any government program benefit from those qualities?

Salary Capitol

Politico reports this morning that almost 2,000 folks working in House offices on Capitol Hill make six figures a year – and that doesn’t include the House Members themselves.  That’s a small slice of the folks working on the Hill, so it’s not like working in Congress automatically means you’re big pimpin’ and/or spendin’ cheese.  But the explanation from the Chief Administrative Office is somewhat amusing (emphasis added):

“Staff are compensated appropriately according to their skill sets, length of career within the CAO … and in direct relation to the salary grade similar professional credentials could achieve in the executive branch or in the private sector in a major metropolitan area like Washington, D.C.,” said CAO spokesman Jeff Ventura. “Salaries are designed to retain the talent necessary to successfully maintain operations of the House of Representatives.”

Sometimes design doesn’t equal results.  Not to say that the folks making this money don’t deserve it – considering they frequently work 20-hour days, spend lots of time away from their families, and have to be on call nearly 24 hours a day.  But finding “the talent necessary to successful maintain” Congress isn’t a matter of salary – it’s a matter of votes.

Wait, who did we just screw over?

Health care reform passed on Sunday night.  On Monday, health care stocks soared – including shares of insurance companies.  It might seem counter-intuitive – after all, the talk of Washington has been that the health care overhaul would put patients ahead of “special interests.”

As with any Washington, DC mystery, the rhetoric is pointless and the real answers stem from who has their hands in the cookie jar.

Because I switched to WordPress, this will never apply to me

New York is investigating whether a blogger is considered self-employed or unemployed.  The decision hinges on the buck-per-day revenues she generated from Google ads on her blog.  When the former lawyer reported the revenue, the state launched an investigation into whether she still deserved unemployment benefits.

The site is still up, and the ads have been removed – which means New York’s Department of Labor succeeded in keeping a laid-off lawyer from experimenting with new revenue streams which could have lead to gainful self-employment.  Good job!

Facebook and FriendFeed: Boardwalk and Park Place

The news which broke yesterday about Facebook acquiring FriendFeed makes good business sense, but it won’t be the last big deal of its kind where two online properties merge.  And once those deals and mergers become more common, you can be sure that Washington, DC will start looking at social networks in a whole new way.

With rumblings already beginning that Google’s near-ubiquitous nature may create trust concerns among federal regulators,  Facebook is moving toward it’s own kind of ubiquity.  For example, FriendFeed used to be a central place to aggregate your social network activity; once the details of the merger are worked out, you’ll be doing that on Facebook.  Facebook won’t just be one place where you share your life online, it will have the ability to be the central hub.

And that seems to be the ultimate goal for Facebook – to be the internet extension of your life.  Just as you might walk out the front door to enter the real world (assuming you live outside of Washington, DC) Facebook would be the place where you start your activity on the web – whether connecting with friends, shopping, or catching up on the news.

If it sounds ambitious, think about Google’s current online dominance.  How many people do you know who have a Gmail account?  How many have Google as their home page, or check current events through Google News?  When you want to find out about someone’s background, how do you start?  By Googling them, of course.  Considering that, 10 years ago, no one knew anything about Google other than it was a 1 with 100 zeroes after it, that makes Facebook’s apparent ambitions pretty reasonable.

That is, until someone at the Securities and Exchange Commission who understands technology starts asking whether losing niche social networks/social media services (like FriendFeed) hurts consumers through a shrinking marketplace where the currency is personal data.  If the current administration isn’t thinking about this yet, it will almost definitely be on the radar screen of the next.  And then the online mergers and acquisitions may be come very big deals.

Lobbying the government on their own dime

The Washington Times’s Amanda Carpenter reports that GM is encouraging its remaining dealers to contact their Members of Congress.  The message: oppose legislation which would re-open dealerships which have closed as part of the bailout.

Obviously, anyone and everyone should have the right to write their Congressman; and in politics, nothing moves unless it’s pushed, so the idea that GM leadership was encouraging  its employees to contact elected leaders makes sense.   But GM isn’t just any big company, it’s a company that owes its current existence to the Obama Administration and an infusion of public money.

The bailout/sale of GM to the government this spring included the administration forcing out longtime CEO Rick Wagoner and replacing him with someone who promised to “learn about cars.” Perhaps it should not be surprising that an Obama-administration-owned GM has proved to be better at lobbying than making cars.

Nationals Politics

America’s Hometown Team, the Washington Nationals, today fired their manager.

It’s funny to watch sports teams which adopt the culture of the city in which they play.  The New York Yankees demand championship-level success each year the same ways the leaders of the business community would push for market share (or at least the way they used to).  The Pittsburgh Steelers play physical, hard-nosed football much the blue-collar work of their namesakes, the steelworkers who literally built that city.  Detroit Pistons games sometimes end up in violence and the Detroit Lions are the Edsel of professional sports.  The 2007 New England Patriots were cocky and overconfident in their quest for a 19-win season like some dude named Sully from Southie who thinks Smithwick is to him what spinach is to Popeye.

(Before anyone complains, spend a couple years in the dorms at UMass, then let’s talk.)

Similarly, the Nationals resemble the inside-the-beltway mentality.  After drifting along without a discernible plan for five years, the team found a scapegoat and fired the man in charge.  (That’s nothing special – baseball managers get axed all the time, even during the season, and going 26-61 is no way to keep a job.) But Acta’s firing comes after years of personnel decisions coming from a front office which mirrored the bureaucracy in the buildings surrounding it.  At its best, Nationals leaders have been incompetent; at their worst, they have been crooked and corrupt.  Not only were the players on the field bad, but there was never a clear plan for developing a winning team.

Washington DC is not a sports town, but it is a frontrunning town, so a winning Nats team here and there would cause some local buzz – and fill some of those empty seats I keep seeing when I make it out to what is a nice and conveniently located ballpark.  But like their bureacratic neighbors, the Nats are content with showing up for 81 home games with a roster of warm bodies – in other words, doing the absolute minimum.  And except for a handful of scapegoats who had to pay the piper after four years, there has been little chance of getting fired.  If only we all had such job security.

I’m not saying Acta is a genius, but he is certainly deserving of another chance – hopefully for him, with a team which is serious about winning.

Jin-ed up?

Without mentioning him once, Governor Bobby Jindal went a long way toward recapturing the formula for Republican success which Ronald Reagan first captured nearly three decades ago.

Despite widespread criticism – even among Republican voices – his response to the unofficial State of the Union address last night struck the right tone for the GOP moving forward.

Unlike the gaggle of 2008 GOP hopefuls who felt they could excite their base by bandying about buzzwords like “conservative” and limited government,” Jindal illustrated the conservative view of government with stories. He recounted his commiseration with a local (Democrat) sheriff when federal bureaucrats stood in the way of Katrina rescue efforts. He talked about stimulating Louisiana’s economy by cutting taxes and promoting business. He talked about reforming education to empower people.

(Incidentally, in one of the poignant lines of his speech, Jindal even took back Katrina – the issue that served as an illustration for Democrats’ accusations that George W. Bush had lost touch with America. Jindal turned it around: “Today in Washington, some of us are promising that government will rescue us from the economic storms… those of us who lived through Katrina — we have our doubts.”)

Most importantly, Gov. Bobby Jindal talked more about what he was for than what he was against. The running theme of his speech was a line he got from his Dad: “Americans can do anything.”

And in that optimistic wisdom is the conservative message. We oppose bigger government not only because it doesn’t work, but because it imposes restrictions that take away the ability for Americans to use their own ingenuity and creativity to solve problems – a formula that has worked for 233 years and counting.

It isn’t enough to say it – voters need to see it. Which is why Governors like Bobby Jindal are still the best torch-bearers for a renewed GOP brand. And while the detractors on the right – who were likely looking for their own version of a “conservative Obama” pan his speech, they must remember that one person will not resurrect the party.

Bobby Jindal is a piece of a much bigger puzzle. For the Republican party to establish consistent electoral victories, they need to paint a picture of a positive party with answers – and like a puzzle, creating that picture requires multiple parts.

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Power vacuum

The Washington Post painted a great picture of the evolution of Your Nation’s Capital in a piece that ran yesterday.

The Post‘s Joel Kotkin points out that DC is unique among national capitals in that it was not a significant city before it was chosen to house the federal government – and even afterward, its growth was slow because American federalism concentrated power elsewhere. But as power became more centralized in the 20th century – especially in the last 30-40 years – Washington has grown in size and cultural significance.

At the same time, Kotkin reminds us, other American cities have suffered crises of identity; Detroit’s auto makers, New York’s financial barons, and others have been “forced to kiss Washington’s ring.” Businesses are moving their corporate headquarters here to be closer to the machinations of government.

Like most federal initiatives, Washington is synthetic. Cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston sprang up on their own because of their access to ports and commerce; Washington was placed strategically; it has planned by a relatively small committee of officials; and its growth has been fueled by money taken from other parts of the country.

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