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Canada makes census voluntary. Geek statisticians revolt.

Canada's move to make its census voluntary will make it tough to get an accurate picture of the population.

By Matthew E. KahnGuest blogger / July 26, 2010

Canada's Minister of Industry Tony Clement, shown here in the House of Commons in Ottawa in May, has defended the government's decision to make filling out the census voluntary. He says the government is protecting citizens from government coercion and invasion of privacy.

Blair Gable/Reuters/File

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Civic engagement --- what do you owe your nation? Are you able and willing to fill out a census form? This implicit volunteer work was studied in a paper by Jake Vigdor a couple of years ago (see this) . He found that people who lived in more diverse counties were less likely to fill out these forms.

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Now, Canada has made the brilliant move of making participation in the "long form" census voluntary. What does this mean? This creates a Nasty self selection problem. Nerd statisticians will only be able to crunch data for the non-representative subsample of people who actually bothered to fill out the forms.

Suppose that highly motivated busy people don't bother, then the "average" person in Canada will look "lazy" because the sample who fills out the survey will omit the high achievers.

The only winner here is Jim Heckman as his cite count will go up as smart researchers in sociology, demography and economics will have to come up with a selection correction to model who bothers to fill out the form and then a researcher studying women's labor force participation would need to estimate a second selection correction. I'd like to see somebody work out the "three step" standard error formula in this case!

Again, our goal is to create new demographic facts --- for example --- about the average woman's labor market experience in Canada --- but we only will observe labor market facts for women who bother to fill out the long form and then only observe women's wages for the select subset of this select subset (who fill out the forms) who choose to work!

Switching Subjects: The New York Times today claims that the reason that the Senate is so divided is that there is no "bridging" social capital --- with all of the deaths of the "Lions" (Thurmond, Byrd, Kennedy) -- the Senate is filled with new guys who have no working relationships and thus can't "bridge" across party lines. This is an interesting claim.

I would also want to know whether the Senate has any real "focal points" --- with all of these guys positioning themselves to run for President --- do any of them command real respect across parties and thus can reach across party lines?

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