the us constitution mandates that a census must be performed every ten years. that mandate is now outdated; it would be like saying “all government computers must have a processor capable of executing five instructions per second.” if we update the time frames specified in the constitution for computational tasks, we can get a lot of wonderful benefits. let me unpack this for you a bit.
a census is a computation performed over the populous, and some of the first modern computers were built to help perform this computation. it was estimated that without a computer, the census would take 13 years to complete. the desire to complete the census in a timely fashion lead to the development of hollerith tabulator, an electromechanical computer. the information in the census – the result of the census computation – is used by congress to determine taxation and representation rates. it is also very useful for people doing genealogy and historical research, as well as for businesses and economists determining things like rates of growth over time. the results of this computation are a public good produced by the government, which provides value to anyone who can use it to make better decisions.
since the writing of the constitution – which mandated a census every ten years – computers have gotten much faster. a rough trend (now referred to as “moore’s law”) been for computers to double in processing power every 1.5 years. this trend was observed in the 1970’s, but it appears to have been going on for a long time now. if the information in the census is valuable because we can act on it, and the pace of life is quicker now, doesn’t it make sense to compute the census more frequently?
if we compute the census more often, as our ability and need to respond to information increase, the value of that census information would stay constant over time. if we keep computing the census every ten years, while life changes much faster, then the information we compute will rapidly become worthless. think about how little value information from ten years ago gives to a business today.
so if information changes faster now, and the census is useful information, we should compute it more frequently. applying moore’s law scaling would tell us to compute the census hundreds of billions of times per second, which i think most people agree would be a little difficult.
what happens if we compute the census every week?
we’d need an army of government workers who would go door to door and ask people ‘hey, how many of you live here? how old are you? what do you do for a living?’
if you have conservative politics, my guess is that sounds obnoxious and orwellian. who’s going to pay for all of these workers? isn’t it creepy for random people to show up at your door and ask how many people live there? if you have conservative politics, my guess is that you also believe government activity provides little value, and that the real wealth of the world is created by businesses. i agree. so imagine what businesses could do with all this information if it were freely accessible. you’d have updates on a weekly basis as to where people were moving, how much they had to spend, what they wanted to buy, and where they were working. manufacturers of products could scale their output to match expected demand, and adjust their downstream purchasing as well. awesome, right?
if you have liberal politics, my guess is that you will find this invasion of privacy troubling. is it really a good idea to have government workers asking everyone how much money they are spending? i share your apprehension at this, but to be honest it’s already happening all the time. there are tons of companies who are compiling this data in secret databases. it’s hard for you to know what information they have on you, and they are largely using it to convince you that buying certain things will make you happier. if the government does this massive census every week, then the best information – the most accurate representation of reality – will be publicly accessible for anyone to look at. it’s a lot more democratic that way. maybe the world would be better if there weren’t massive databases on who was sick and who had problems and who was doing what – but these things already exist, and now they are private and in the hands of people who use them only to make money, with little regard for human consequences. making this information publicly accessible and free makes things more democratic.
if you have liberal politics, my guess is that you believe that there is too much focus on money in the world today. i agree. suppose this weekly census incorporates the immense amount of human knowledge we’ve accumulated lately about the importance of things like diet, exercise, health and moods? if we extend the census to ask people questions about how often they exercise, what they’re eating, how their are feeling and what they would like, we’d have a massive set of data about how we are doing as people. we can detect epidemics of diseases but also of depression, and we can get a much better gauge of how healthy our society is and how it’s progressing.
not only are we making these giant databases – which already exist – publicly accessible, but now people have a face they can associate with the government. it’s easy to oppose “the government” as a faceless entity that makes you wait forever to fill out a form. it’s harder to oppose a face that asks you how they’re doing and even things like ‘what help could you use in your life?’ you have someone to tell the problems you struggle with, and even provide emotional support. there is an army of young people trained in the arts and humanities, who have studied the human struggle from many angles, but nobody is paying them to offer occasional moral support, and so many of them now are offering you processed food instead.
conservatives who believe that the financial world is a proxy for all human concern can still get behind this new ‘touchy feeling’ approach. entrepreneurs would have a list of people saying “well i’d really like help with my laundry because it takes a lot of time for me to take it to the laundromat, wash it, and and sort it.” the entrepreneurs could create businesses to address the needs people report on the list. the government doesn’t have to solve the problems identified here; it can let the market do what it’s best at. businesses could spend less time trying to convince people they need things, and more time solving the needs that people have but don’t get addressed because there is no public dataset of ‘stuff people want but can’t afford right now.’
suppose we mandated that publicly traded corporations have to release earnings statements once a minute. with modern technology this is perfectly doable – it’s just expensive. it would require large companies to hire many more accountants and lawyers and developers to make this possible, creating millions of well paying jobs and preventing an army of unemployed lawyers from trying to make work for themselves by fomenting conflict.
by spending all of this money, we’d be putting way more information into the market, making the market more efficient. we’d also be removing the incentive large companies have to shift their payments a week or two here or there, to change the values of the quarterly earnings report.
when reports come out minute by minute, the irrational market movements on these quarterly releases stop driving the market. the freedom from obsessing over three month periods would let companies focus on the fundamentals, such as the quaint and outdated practice of identifying a real need, satisfying it, and making a profit. the destructive modern trend towards “generating demand” and “providing shareholder value” work themselves out as “make consumers sad so you can offer them happiness” and “make investors happy so that they don’t pull their money out of the market.”
a lot of people want big change to make the world better. i used to be one of them, and sometimes i still am. but i’ve found “big changes” are ones people tend to debate a lot more than simple changes that are easy to reason about. ‘update the times hard-coded in the constitution to reflect the modern pace of life’ seems pretty simple to me.