Monday, October 24, 2011

Redistricting: Making the Maps That Make Your Vote Matter Less

The New York Times reported on Saturday that efforts currently underway to draw new boundaries for Congressional districts across the country, a process called Redistricting that takes place in America after each Decennial Census, the most recent of which occurred, of course, in 2010.

Above, an interactive map of the current population of Colorado from the Census Bureau.

The Times points out that 28 states -- including Colorado -- have already had or are in the process having their new district maps challenged in court due to a process called gerrymandering.  Gerrymandering is a process named for Elbridge Gerry, former Governor of Massachusetts, whose "Democratic-Republican partisans," according to the blog Big Think... 
...had stitched together the district in such a way as to assure the electoral victory of their candidate and therefore the defeat of the candidate for the other main party, the Federalists. The year was 1812, and the first of many recorded uses of the term occurred that spring.
From Big Think, an 1812 Editorial cartoon by famed American artist Gilbert Stuart that
gave birth to the term "Gerrymander."
Essentially, gerrymandering is the process by which the party currently holding a majority at the time of redistricting oversees and approves the process of creating new district maps.  The downside is that this is done in a manner that makes it highly unlikely, if not statistically impossible, that the party in party will lose an upcoming election.  In some cases, the dominant party make gain seats through redistricting.
To understand the effects redistricting can have on future elections, it helps to note how congressional seats are initially assigned -- or apportioned, to use the official term. The U.S. Census Bureau has, to that end, released a video summarizing the process of apportionment.

Once seats are apportioned, the creation of districts are up to the state.  The State of Colorado has a detailed Redistricting Web site to make the process as transparent an open as possible.  This site includes definitions of terms, access to the data files used to draw the maps, as well as GIS files and even Google Earth friendly KMZ files to view existing and proposed changes to congressional boundaries.

If after viewing these files a person doesn't quite understand how the mix of population and political representation can affect the creation of congressional voting districts, then they do have the opportunity to try their hand at redistricting via The Redistricting Game.

As its title implies, The Redistricting Game allows players to work to balance congressional districts in favor of their party.  It also serves, according to its creators at the University of Southern California, "to educate, engage, and empower citizens around the issue of political redistricting."
By exploring how the system works, as well as how open it is to abuse, The Redistricting Game allows players to experience the realities of one of the most important (yet least understood) aspects of our political system. The game provides a basic introduction to the redistricting system, allows players to explore the ways in which abuses can undermine the system, and provides info about reform initiatives - including a playable version of the Tanner Reform bill to demonstrate the ways that the system might be made more consistent with tenets of good governance. Beyond playing the game, the web site for The Redistricting Game provides a wealth of information about redistricting in every state as well as providing hands-on opportunities for civic engagement and political action.

Players can try their hand at congressional redistricting via The Redistricting Game.
Were you able to draw up boundaries that approtions voters fairly into districts?  Did the game affect your perceptions of bias and gerrymandering for future elections?  Let us know your thoughts on the process as a whole in the comments below.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Listeria Outbreak Update

Today the Food and Drug Administration released a report providing an overview of a variety of factors that may have contributed to the listeria outbreak at Jensen Farms in Colorado. If you want you can find a timeline with all the pertinent documents on the FDA's web site. Want more alphabet soup? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also has a page on the outbreak.

Want some help on food safety? Why not check out this video:

If you are all set on fresh produce prep, but the the start of the Walking Dead season has you running scared, the CDC also has Zombie Preparedness 101 kit.

Still want more information? Why not check out the library's guide to the food supply.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Video: How to Use FDsys

Continuing from the "What is FDsys?" video made earlier this year, the latest video from the Government Information Library, "How to Use FDsys," is a short introduction to the three main ways to find content in the GPO database.  The video has been embedded below, but can also be found on the CU Boulder Libraries YouTube Channel.

We hope you enjoy it, and if you do, please feel free to share and embed the video elsewhere. Thanks for watching!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

What's Up with Iran?

Iran has been in the news quite a bit recently.  First it was the detained hikers.  Then on the 11th of October, 2011,  the FBI announced that "Two men were charged today in New York for their alleged participation in a plot directed by elements of the Iranian government to murder the Saudi Ambassador to the United States with explosives while the Ambassador was in the United States".  Allegedly, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) were involved in the plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador.  According to a non-classifed Defense report, IRGC-QF's "global activities include: gathering tactical intelligence; conducting covert diplomacy; providing training, arms, and financial support to surrogate groups and terrorist organizations; and facilitating some of Iran's provision of humanitarian and economic support to Islamic causes." 

Photo taken at a press conference announcing the arrest.

For additional information on Iran and to follow this emerging story, we suggest exploring the Government Information country page on Iran, the State Department page on Iran, and the Homeland Security Digital Library.  You can also explore the links on the department's Foreign Relations and International Aid page. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Justice Clarence Thomas Can't Catch a Break

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas returned to the news recently for two very different reasons.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Earlier this month, Democratic lawmakers asked that Justice Thomas be investigated by the government for failing to report -- for 13 years -- an accurate reflection of his wife's income.  Judicial watchdogs and some left-leaning media outlets feel that the sources of her income may indirectly influence cases where their interests come to judgment within the Supreme Court.  An opinion piece from the USC Annenberg School of Journalism collects several reports on Thomas' behavior, including an item pointing out that the Justice received a $15,000 gift from The American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, and decided favorably toward AEI in three cases before the Court.  The New York Times had written earlier this year on the increased scrutiny facing Supreme Court Justices.

Now, as reported today by National Public Radio, October 11 is the 20th anniversary of Justice Thomas' infamous confirmation hearings, when the nominee -- then a judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit -- was accused of sexually harassing an employee who had worked for him at both the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  (The events of Thomas' confirmation hearings were a point mentioned by this blog recently when looking at the widely polarizing, and ultimately unsuccessful, Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Judge Robert Bork.) 

Transcripts of the Thomas nomination hearings -- as well as transcripts for all successful nominations to the Supreme Court since 1971 -- are available for download at the Web site for the U.S. Senate.

Rather than rehash the Thomas hearings, however, NPR approaches the Justice by taking a long view of his influence on the Court.  NPR reports of Thomas:

"Thomas is not a traditional conservative, not the kind of justice who believes that law should be built up incrementally over time and that adhering to workable precedent means the law is predictable and can be relied on. Instead, he, more than any other justice, believes that the court over the past century has gotten large swaths of the law wrong, and that those rulings should be reversed.

Though his defenders shy from calling his views radical, they trumpet Thomas for being the only justice to so consistently return to what they see as the original meaning of the Constitution when it was adopted in 1789. UCLA law professor and academic blogger Eugene Volokh compares Thomas to the Supreme Court's most famous justices — Louis Brandeis, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Marshall — in the sense that he has a clear vision of where he thinks the court should go."
What is striking -- and to some, similarly controversial, is that for as non-centrist as his judicial opinions place him, Justice Thomas is far from the most outspoken of the Supreme Court justices.  Indeed, Justice Thomas has not spoken -- at all -- during an argument before the Supreme Court for was is going on five-and-a-half years.

The last time Justice Thomas spoke was on February 22, 2006 -- when most CU Freshmen were about 13 years old -- in the case of Bobby Lee Holmes v. South Carolina.  Transcripts taken from the Supreme Court Web site, show this to be his last remark:

There is no question that aspects of Thomas' tenure on the Court have their place in the American judiciary.  Reticence, however extreme, can be as much a virtue as a flaw, and hard-leaning political beliefs -- whether Left or Right -- are essential to challenging and even overturning commonly held assumptions of legal interpretations.  American political and judicial history has similarly been rife with individualists, radically independent thinkers, and those with an agenda to promote an internal systems of political belief that they see promoting the intentions of those who penned the country's legal boundaries.
So what, if anything, makes Justice Thomas different?  Did Thomas enter until a light of scrutiny unfairly applied to his later behavior?  Or are his actions so extreme that they deserve federal review?

To look at Thomas' legal opinions, other judicial decisions, and for sources that will help you explore the world of the American legal system, take a look at the Government Information Library's page on The Supreme and Federal Courts.  And feel free to express your own thoughts in comments below.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Is the Post Office a Public Good?

Forever stamp.  What if the Post Office
goes under?  What then? defines "public good" as a good or service that is provided without profit for society collectively.  That definition puts the U.S. Post Office, which many regard as a public good, in a bind. While it provides a public service to society as a whole, it must also be self-supporting. In other words it needs to make a profit or at least break even.  But is it really a business?   While the Post Office theoretically operates as a business, it has plenty of oversight in the form of the Postal Regulartory Commission, Congress, and the President.  Don't forget the lobbyists.  If it were able to operate completely as a business, the Post Office could introduce new products and services in order to compete in the marketplace.  Hamstringed by politics, however, the Post Office has proposed closing approximately 3700 post offices and the elimination of mail delivery on Saturday to help balance its books.  There is also discussion of cutting the benefits of postal workers--the folks who are out there through snow, rain, and dark of night delivering the mail.

The effects of closures on rural communities may be particularly hard.  Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet (Colorado) have urged the Post Office to consider the possible negative impacts of closure on rural communities when making decisions. A press release is available on Sen. Udall's website.

To read more about the history of the Post Office and the politics that limit its ability to be self-supporting, see David Morris's posts The Case for the Post Office and More on the Case for the Post Office in the Huffington Post.  To learn more about congress and politics, check out the Government Information Library's page on Politics.  There you will find a link to Center For Responsive Politics.  According to the center's Lobbying database,  FedEx spent $25,582,074 lobbying Congress in 2010.  UPS spent $5,587,349 in that same period. 

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Congressional Research Service (CRS) Reports

Congressional Research Service (CRS) is a research agency of Congress and writes reports at Congress' request. These short reports (usually 10-40 pages long) cover recent topics of concern. This week brings us reports on the secrecy, foreign relations, military issues, and much more. Although these reports are in the public domain, there is no central database available to the public. To get a copy of a CRS report, you can request it from your senator or representative. These reports were discovered by Secrecy News:
Interested in historical CRS reports? If you are here at the Boulder campus, check out the Proquest Congressional database, which has reports dating back to 1916.

Not on campus but still want access to additional reports? The library has a guide linking to various additional sources of CRS reports. 

Monday, October 03, 2011

The State of the Statistical Abstract

No one questions that Americans' tastes and interests are changing rapidly.  In 2009 American newspaper publishers received $13 billion less in total revenue from what they earned in 2005, a 26% decline (Tbl. 1134).   In 2011, 78% of American adults had access to the Internet, compared to only 53% in the year 2000 (Tbl. 1158 from 2012), and 59% of these users browsed the Internet to gather their news (Tbl. 1158 from 2011).  In another interesting shift, the year 2008 was the first year in American history when consumers spent more time playing video games -- 107 hours per person per year -- than they did reading books -- 104 hours per person per year. That transition became even more pronounced in 2009, when it was 121 hours spent with video games and only 98 with books (Tbl 1130).

Harry Potter, meet Marcus Fenix.
Americans spend more time now with video games than with books.
These figures help make it clear that the country is looking more to the computer screen for news and entertainment, and less toward what are considered "traditional" media: books, printed items, and radio, to name a few.  This suggests too, especially in a time of massive deficits and a record-setting financial crisis, that the burden is on the content creator when justifying publishing costs for media that may have less of an impact (or audience) than in years past.

On the budgetary chopping block this year is the very publication that provided all the numbers cited above, and whose latest edition for 2012 has just been released online (print copies are forthcoming): The Statistical Abstract of the United States. Published every year since 1878 (back when Rutherford Hayes was president), the Statistical Abstract is a compendium of statistics "on the social, political, and economic organization of the United States... designed to serve as a convenient volume for statistical reference and a as a guide to other statistical publications and sources" (Preface).
Will this be the last year ever for the Statistical Abstract?
What threatens the Statistical Abstract is a budget proposed by the U.S. Census Bureau this year which asks, due to a hostile climate for government expenditures and a justifiable fear of a more prolonged economic recession, for the elimination of the publication, as well as for the elimination of Current Industrial Reports, Federal Financial Statistics, and all but effectively ending the Economic Census of the United States.

Clip from the proposed budget for the U.S. Census Bureau, 2012.
Census Director Robert Groves explained the cuts in a blog post.
"The President presented a Census Bureau budget to Congress that was a real 11% cut from our funding the previous year. The Appropriations Committee in the House of Representatives has taken the first official action on that proposal, and cut that proposed budget further by 16.5 percent; our periodic programs request was cut 21 percent. The next steps for our funding bill are to be considered and then passed by the full House, then sent to the Senate. 
A cut of this magnitude in our periodic programs account means we cannot do all the work the Congress has asked us to do."
Since that post, Groves has gone on to write how similar data might be produced in the future, blogging here and here on the issue.

The public response to the notion to killing off the Statistical Abstract has been intense.  The most cited response has come from Robert Samuelson at The Washington Post, whose editorial has been linked or reprinted in full by newspapers across the country, from The New York Times to The Deseret News of Utah, to Ohio's Akron Beacon Journal, but articles and opinion pieces can be found in publications centered in the sciences, economics, government librarianship, and in business trades.

"The Stat Abstract has two great virtues," wrote Samuelson.
"First, it conveniently presents in one place a huge amount of information from a vast array of government and private sources. For example, the National Fire Protection Association tells us that 30,170 fire departments fought 1.45 million fires in 2008. Second, the footnotes show where to get more information."

From the position of Government Information Librarians, the Abstract is probably the single best publication released by the government to encapsulate the need for, and usefulness of the kinds of data the the United States collects.  For example, according to the 1878 Abstract, the national debt in 1860 was $7,065,990.56.  Total.  The 1995 Abstract tells us that the debt that year was estimated at $4,961,529,000,000.  What will our debt be in 2088?  On what will that money be spent?  These questions will be remarkably more difficult to answer without the data found in the the Statistical Abstract.

Or think of it this way:  If Americans are now spending their time reading online and playing video games, what will they be doing in 2020?  Or 2048?  How will they get their information?  Where will they work, and what will their jobs be?  What will they be doing for fun?

Without the Statistical Abstract, without the Census Bureau pursuing and compiling that information, there is no clear answer as to who Americans will turn to for not only gathering that information, but for releasing the information to the public, freely, without any restriction to access.  A person might be tempted to suggest that a wealthy and powerful company like Google take on the responsibility, but Google's practices for releasing data are murkier than their practices for collecting it.  And which do we believe will outlive the other:  An entity like Google, Inc., the railroad company of its era, or the government of the United States?  And which can be more easily held responsible for the publication and dissemination of data about the interests, habits, changes, and efforts of the American people?

While pondering these questions, you may wish to take a look through the Statistical Abstract to get a sense of its scope, and to contemplate what the loss of this data might do to your next research paper, or your next market anaysis, or your next home buying experience, and so on.  It is a singular and unique statistical publication in the history of nations. 

And next year it's gone.