Post #512: Census nonsense from Town government, and the larger lesson to be learned from that.

Posted on January 23, 2020

I have been told by friends that I need to keep going on this blog.  And so I will grudgingly try to grind out posts on a fairly regular basis.

That said, there seems to be little point to doing the extensive homework required to support the factual and logical accuracy of these posts.  Facts and logic are ineffective tools of rhetoric in the modern era, and my insistence on that approach is more a remnant of old habits than it is an effective means of mass communication.  I’ll go so far as to say that most readers don’t give a rat’s ass about factual accuracy, mine or anyone else’s.  After all, the central two-part concept of social media is that that we are each empowered to have strongly held and firmly expressed opinions, yet none of us is burdened to do even the slightest bit of homework so that we know what we’re talking about.

So it’s high time that I got with the program.  Logically, stridency, rather than accuracy should be my goal.  And so, in the toxic spirit of righteous cluelessness that is so central to internet-based discourse, let me dive right in.  I’ll try to keep this one short, to the point, and fact-free.

At the last Town Council session I attended, the following statement was expressed by the Director of Planning and Zoning, and duly echoed at various points by pro-MAC Town council member(s).

We have to wait to 2021 to revise the Town Comprehensive Plan because 2020 Census data will be available then.

As a long-time power user of US Census data*, I guess I need to point out that this statement is bullshit.  But what’s interesting is that it’s not simple, generic bullshit, the sort you can find anywhere.  It’s not garden-variety accidental bullshit, so to speak.  Instead, it’s a shining example of a well-defined category of purposeful bullshit.  It’s bullshit with forethought, or if you prefer, bullshit with intent.  In this case, it’s a classic “semi-attached figure”, as described in How to Lie With Statistics.**

* I worked for one of a handful of Federal agencies that ordered and used the full “STF” (Summary Tape File) tables from the 1990 Census.  That era predates internet access to Census data, and as a consequence, you really needed to have a good reason to justify ordering the data.  The files were delivered in the form of multiple Xerox boxes (copy paper boxes) filled with 6250 bytes-per-inch (BPI) 9-track reel-to-reel mainframe computer tapes.  It was data you could measure in pounds as well as megabytes.  You’ve seen the hardware used to read and write the tapes, because every old science-fiction movie that had a mainframe computer scene had one of those reel-to-reel tape drives churning away in the background.  The whole set of tables would now fit on a $20 thumb drive.  But the legacy of tape drives lives on.  If you’ve ever wondered how we settled on 8 bits per byte as the modern standard, it’s because IBM used 9-track tape drives (8 bits plus a parity (checksum) bit).

** How to Lie With Statistics remains my favorite popular work on statistical reasoning, despite illustrations and anecdotes that appear frankly racist and sexist in the modern context.  I suggest that you read it for the statistical concepts, and ignore whatever offends you.  More than half a century after it was written, it still nails the most common ways people routinely use graphs and statistics to lie.

To introduce the concept of the semi-attached figure, the author of How to Lie With Statistics described it thus:

If you can't prove what you want to prove, demonstrate something else and pretend that they are the same thing. In the daze that follows the collision of statistics with the human mind, hardly anybody will notice the difference.  (From How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff).

A semi-attached figure is a mash-up of something that is true with something that is not true.  You create such a mash-up in the hopes that the reader or listener will accept the entire statement as true.  Whereas, in fact, the true part and the false have little or nothing to do with one another, despite phrasing that makes it appear as if they do.  Hence, semi-attached.

Here, we have one statement with two pieces.

  • One, 2020 Census data will be available in 2021.
  • Two, we can’t rewrite the comprehensive plan before then.

I claim that this is a classic semi-attached figure because no substantive changes in the Comprehensive Plan actually depend on the 2020 Census data.  Or, more properly, depend on on any surprise that might arise from the actual 2020 data, compared to the Census 2019 population projections.  It’s not as if some stated goal of the Comprehensive Plan would have to be materially modified if (e.g.) it turns out that we have 16,800 residents instead of the currently estimated 16,400.

So the first statement — 2020 Census data will be available in 2021 — is mostly correct.  The Bureau of the Census has not yet announced the timetable for data releases from the 2020 Census, but based on prior Census releases, place-level (in this case, town-level) detailed tabulations will likely be released in fall of 2021.  Those are released state-by-state, so when, exactly, we’d have fresh detailed tabulations for Virginia is not clear.

But as importantly, there information we get from “the Census” is quite limited.  There is no longer a Census “long form” questionnaire, and so the decennial Census is no longer the source for any information beyond basic demographics — count of persons by age/race/gender and count of dwelling units.  (Download the 2020 Census questionnaire if you don’t believe me (.pdf).  Anything else — income, commuting patterns, and so on — now comes from the American Community Survey, which is done on an ongoing basis.   There’s no need to wait for 2021 for that information, because that survey is repeated annually.

The second statement — we can’t update the Comprehensive Plan before 2021 — is clearly false in multiple ways.  Mainly, it’s false because no important portion of the Comprehensive Plan depends in any material way on the population count we will get from the 2020 Census.  Sure, there’s a profile of the Town, in one of the chapters, in which a handful of numbers would ideally be refreshed from 2020 Census, instead of ongoing (e.g., 2019) Census Bureau population projections.  In other words, the exact Census count is more-or-less window dressing for the report.

But, far more galling, the Town is in the process of updating parts of the Comprehensive Plan right now, as in, during the last Planning Commission meeting.  They are updating the Plan to account for the use of certain buildings as public buildings (the house the Town bought “for no purpose” on Beulah, a couple of years ago), and to account for building the new police station.

So the Town can update, does update, and in fact is currently in the process of updating the Comprehensive Plan at times other than the legally required minimum of five-year intervalsAnd it is the juxtaposition of that bald-faced statement (we must wait until 2021 to update the Plan) with the current actions (we are currently updating some parts of the plan) that I found so — well, so typical of Town of Vienna government.  It’s almost as if they go out of their way to mock the citizens, to see just what nonsense we are willing to swallow.

And so, you have to ask why?  Why are the pro-MAC forces so intent on keeping anybody from considering changes to the Comprehensive Plan until …. until after they’ve done the complete rewrite of the entire Town of Vienna zoning law?

The answer to that is fairly obvious, I think.   So let me explain it as best I can.  It boils down to ensuring that high-density mixed-used zoning remains part of Town of Vienna zoning law.

The Town passed the MAC ordinance in 2014.  At that time, mixed-used development along Maple was not part of the Comprehensive Plan that was then in effect — the 2010 Comprehensive Plan.  (The phrase “mixed use” literally does not appear in the 2010 Comprehensive Plan).  So .. the Town conveniently re-wrote the Comprehensive Plan, after the fact, to match MAC zoning.  The 2015 (or is it 2016?) Comprehensive Plan added a heavy emphasis on mixed-use development along Maple, more than a year (or is it two years) after MAC was passed.

Put aside the fact that it makes a mockery of the term “plan”, if you routinely rewrite your “plan” to provide an after-the-fact match to what you’ve done.  Put aside the fact that the Town is going to do that again, with the forthcoming rewrite of the zoning laws.  (They again intend to rewrite the Comprehensive Plan after passing the new zoning, and will again make the “Plan” match whatever they’ve decided to do with the zoning.)

No, the real danger to the pro-big-develpment forces here is that somebody might look at what we’ve gotten so far from MAC and decide that they’d just as soon remove “mixed use” from the Comprehensive Plan.  If they were to do that, then it would be illegal to include mixed-use development in the zoning rewrite, because that would be inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan.  (Or, at least, that’s how the law reads.)

But conversely, if they hand their zoning law consultant a Comprehensive Plan that calls for mixed-use development along Maple — as the current one does — then there is no legal way to exclude mixed-use development as part of the rezoning.  That is, by keeping it in the master plan, they guarantee that we’re stuck with it in the new set of zoning rules.  So they want to preclude any such rewrite, as a way to ensure that high-density mixed-use development remains part of the zoning.

Anyway, that’s your statistics and civics lesson for today.  In theory, the Comprehensive Plan controls what can and can’t be done in terms of rewriting the zoning.  In practice, the Town government uses that Comprehensive Plan selectively.  If they want to quash something, they’ll point out that it’s not part of the Plan.  But if they want to do something, they’ll ignore that, and write it into the Plan after the fact.  And if they want you to ignore the potential to change the Plan, they’ll make up some bullshit excuse why that can’t be done … until they’ve finished rewriting the zoning.

The larger lesson?  Some parts of Town government remain perfectly happy to feed you a bunch of nonsense, if you’re dumb enough to swallow it.  That’s a convenient way to quash dissent, and saves them some hassle.  There’s never any penalty for doing that.  And so, quite logically, that remains part of the toolkit currently in use.