At the behest of the federal government, and despite laws and President Obama’s recent posturing against this, states have been busy creating data systems to track “their” citizens’ entire lives. Pennsylvania calls theirs—no joke—a “womb to workplace” data collection system.
The feds have been giving states our money to create individual databases that must network with each other, technically following but in reality violating existing legal prohibitions against national databases of children. For more details about this and how the national Common Core initiative provides a rationale and infrastructure for such massive data-gathering, check out a new report that took my coauthors and me about a year to put together.
Kids’ government files started in education, since that’s where the perv…er, state touches most kids frequently; but, also at federal behest, states are starting to collectivize and expand their data collection into comprehensive personal dossiers that include things like health and social services data, starting with conception and going until death. The federal National Education Data Model suggests some 416 datapoints to collect in kids’ dossiers, including religious affiliation (from Assembly of God folks to Buddhists to the Amish!), whether the individual is registered to vote, bus route, parents’ hourly rate of pay, and more.
“The Education Data Model strives to be a shared understanding among all education stakeholders as to what information needs to be collected and managed at the local level in order to enable effective instruction of students and superior leadership of schools,” its website says. Translation: Some feducrats believe my children and yours cannot be well educated unless schools record things like kids’ “response to a stimulus on a test,” written observations from people evaluating them, a record of their field trips, and specific methods their teachers use. As our report notes, nearly every state now has what they call a P-20 database. In Oregon, that stands for tracking kids from “prenatal” to and through their careers.
Given the massive amount of information on the table here, it’s no wonder John Eppolito was handed a bill of more than $10,000 recently when he asked to see the data Nevada has collected on his kids (even though federal law supposedly grants him the right to see it for free).
So let me get this straight. People who support the state-sponsored murder of tiny humans like to tell pro-lifers, “keep your hands off my uterus.” But their liberal compatriots are only too happy to get their fingers on my womb and its fruit, ‘til death do us part. (Perhaps it hasn’t crossed their minds that “womb” and “uterus” are the same organ.) Can’t we first settle whether I want to marry the state before it grants itself custody rights to my kids?
‘Conservatives’ for a Managed Economy
What’s worse, Republicans, never content to leave statist ideas without gripping the helm, are getting on board with the idea of “using data” to manage people and the economy. Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, as chairwoman of the National Governors Association, has made “aligning education with the workforce” her signature initiative to promote nationwide. GOP presidential contenders have followed Fallin’s lead, including Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Leave the critique of education as mere vocational training for another long essay. How does one align education with the workforce? Well, there are really two options. You could let the invisible hand of the market organically direct people to activities that best serve them and society through price signals and other amazing properties of the market’s spontaneous self-order. Or you could start trying to centrally manage the market, like European socialists or Russian totalitarians. And that provides the pretext for all these placenta-to-paycheck databases governors are scurrying to construct under the direction of their federal masters. Of course, centrally planning economies also requires centrally planning people, which happens to conflict with that old “liberty and justice for all” idea. Whoops.
The justification this time is the debatable “skills gap”: Employers keep saying they can’t find qualified people for the jobs they have available. The odd thing is that none of these obviously intelligent governors seems to have asked the simple question, “Why would people not naturally do what it takes to get a job that can sustain their needs?” It is natural to be lazy, but humans usually overcome that when they have good reasons, two of which are that we like to eat and work can be very fulfilling. Immediately we see that government stunts these natural motivations by allowing a great many people to eat without working first. Even so, a great many people continue to seek work, so why are they not able to prepare themselves for the available jobs? Well, a sane person might again look and see that government completely distorts the market signals between would-be employees and their would-be employers, by shifting the cost of labor, subsidizing ineffective job training programs (aka modern “college”), exacting high taxes which discourage employers from training people on the job, and so forth. Also, don’t forget that what businesses really can’t get are soft skills like showing up on time, which is more a fruit of our growing marriage inequality than our education system. Addressing these would repeal, rather than reinforce, economic planning.
Might I also reinforce the futility of economic planning by mentioning, for one, that labor force projections are a highly stupid basis for restructuring education and slinging around millions of other people’s dollars they could have instead used themselves more productively. For one, the modern economy shifts freakishly fast. The jobs available when today’s kindergarteners graduate in 13 or 17 years will likely be vastly different. Locking today’s economy in place only retards tomorrow’s economy. For another, labor force projections only a few years old are already wildly off. In its 2002 predictions for 2010, for example, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that construction trades would grow by 13 percent. It actually contracted by 44 percent. The market for oil extraction workers expanded by 17 percent, instead of contracting by 2 percent. And so forth. This is the key problem with central planning, as every free-market economist has screamed for centuries: Central planners will never have enough information to make good decisions—and Big Data doesn’t change that. It only makes it worse by increasing our confidence in a failed system.
But for some reason, leaders who claim to love free enterprise think like its enemies. That brings us back to these ovary-to-office data collection schemes statists are selling governors with Republican-sounding slogans like “economic development.” Well, one man’s economic development is this woman’s population control. And even if GOP governors don’t want to wake up to the reality that they are creating totalitarian-friendly infrastructure, the liberals they’re partnering with, after attending the media parties celebrating their bipartisanship, are using this infrastructure to continue building their cradle-to-grave feudalist state.
Blameshift to Business and Terrorists
The Obama administration, aware its image has been tarnished by essentially doing nothing to restrain the government’s vast appetite for collecting intimate data on citizens with little justification besides “we want it, so terrorism!”, has recently issued a report that sounds concerned about privacy. And, of course, liberals created a “right to privacy” to legalize killing defenseless babies, so they can’t very well appear to disavow information privacy (our paper argues data privacy is properly seen as a question of property rights).
The technocratic tell occurs early on in the paper, however, where it quotes factory efficiency pioneer Frederick Winslow Taylor: “[T]he fundamental principles of scientific management are applicable to all kinds of human activities.” In truth, humans do not flourish under “scientific management,” as even dry-science economists will tell you. Let me counter-quote Lenore Ealy: “We understand today through the work of social theorists such as Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, Michael Polanyi, Michael Oakeshott, Deirdre McCloskey, and others that the methods of scientific rationality are not applicable to the management of social problems in which human persons are actors.” She quotes Hayek:
“If it is true that the progressive tendency toward central control of all social processes is the inevitable result of an approach which insists that everything must be tidily planned and made to show a recognizable order, it is also true that this tendency tends to create conditions in which nothing but an all-powerful central government can preserve order and stability. The concentration of all decisions in the hands of authority itself produces a state of affairs in which what structure society still possesses is imposed upon it by government and in which the individuals have become interchangeable units with no other definite or durable relations to one another than those determined by the all comprehensive organization.”
The Obama administration is nothing if not technocratic, and its actions speak far, far louder than its many false words. In 2010 (with keyboards and phones, presumably) the U.S. Department of Education rewrote federal privacy law to let literally any company or organization in the world receive data from K-12 students without their parents’ knowledge or consent. Now any school, school contractor, or government agency is free to share education data at will (see our paper for more). This, according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center, contradicts the law itself. Rather than limiting the data collected and shared about students, which was Congress’s intent, the “interpretation” expands it. And it’s not just the Obama administration. The House just passed a bipartisan bill expanding federal data collection on kids into tracking their behavior and more. As if those intrusive school climate surveys aren’t already way TMI (“How many books do you have at home? What do you eat for breakfast?” Etc. How is that remotely federal business?).
Obama also tried out the Adam defense: Someone else is doing it too! He essentially insisted we should all trust big government to manage us using our private data, but business, although it has no coercive power unless it’s in bed with government, those are the scary guys. Don’t mind the black helicopters and SWAT suits, boys. Take a look at those spreadsheet plodders.
Politico picked up the administration’s blame game with a recent series that largely targeted big bad business for free-wheeling our data. Business should be more transparent with customers when we trade our information for their “free” services, and I would be very happy to see more “we data-mine from our free products but offer a secure product if you want to pay extra” sort of arrangements. Women should not have to act like criminals to keep their pregnancy from marketers. Neither should we be tracked and managed through intercourse-to-interview government data systems.
Ultimately, the biggest threat that arises when companies collect Big Data on customers is that government will view those databases as an irresistible temptation to further its will to control society. The worst Politico can find businesses doing is selling tasteless lists of rape victims to companies that might want to sell them things. The White House’s own report notes one of the many far more terrifying abuses government has perpetuated using data: “Census data collected under strict guarantees of confidentiality was used to identify neighborhoods where Japanese-Americans lived so they could be detained in internment camps for the duration of the war.” Hmm…sadness-inducing advertisements I can throw away in three seconds, or being forcibly removed from my home and family and put in jail indefinitely. Which is worse?
It is very likely, especially given our current climate, that government will expand eminent domain-style seizures into big data, just like we’ve already seen it do with web-based email, cell phone records, Facebook interactions, and just about everything else. This is the real danger of private databases—they’re not likely to stay private.
None of this is compatible with a United States built upon the central premise that the people are the sovereigns. We are our own masters, and the masters of our government. Anyone who creates or supports different structures wants a radically different form of government than the blessings of liberty and self-government we were born to enjoy.