Politicians of various stripes and their backers delight in kicking each other around. They’ve become so accomplished at mud slinging and twisting facts one would think they spend some time practicing. Perhaps they do.
For the last several years, our pols appear to have been warming up for the big 2012 campaigns by kicking a statistic around. A great many have been putting the boots to the National Unemployment Rate.
A while back, Democrats claimed unemployment was much higher than the indicator showed, and thus painted an unrealistic picture of the horrible economic conditions created by George W. Bush. A bit later, the blame game diminished in effectiveness as a tactic, but Democrats kept blasting away with the same theme to support the idea that we need more stimulus money and government job creation to pull out of our economic funk.
Republicans now are singing the same song—the monthly unemployment statistical reports are grossly understated—but for a different reason. The contention is that President Obama is falsely claiming economic achievements based on the unemployment indicator dropping slowly over the past few months. They are saying exactly what the Democrats have been claiming—discouraged job seekers are leaving the labor force in large numbers, and thus skewing the indicator.
Usually, the Geezer would pass all this off as typical political posturing unworthy of serious attention. However, a recent editorial in The Washington Times raised my ire. The headline read: “Obama Cooks the Unemployment Books.”
The last line in the opinion piece says a calculation posted on a web site, “ . . . exposes what the government statistics are intended to do: Get Barack re-elected.”
From start to finish, the editorial was an unwarranted insult to civil servants who work to provide useful statistics to policy makers and the American people, especially those employed by the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of course, it also insulted Obama, but there is nothing particularly noteworthy about the Times doing that.
I worked with civil service statisticians for many years. It is hard to envision any group of people more dedicated to getting things right. They are especially diligent about trying to develop controls to minimize or eliminate bias from any source.
Even if President Obama was unethical enough to try to influence the work of the Census and Labor Statistics people, he certainly is not dumb enough to try. Any high-level politician attempting to “cook the books” in this arena would touch off a storm of protest he or she could not survive.
The National Unemployment Rate, a product of the Current Population Survey, is derived from statistics collected by the Census Bureau for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It is based on a sophisticated, carefully designed sampling of households throughout the U.S. It does not count every unemployed or employed person. Thus, it is inappropriate to claim the rate is either right or wrong. The questions should be: “Does the rate reasonably portray the situation in the nation? Is it comparable to rates for previous months and previous years, and thus useful in showing trends?
No indicator based on sampling is perfect. Government employees have been calculating unemployment rates since the 1890s. From time-to-time they have sought to improve the accuracy of the rates by changing sampling methods or adjusting underlying assumptions when there is a consensus that newer assumptions are more valid. Thus, looking at rates for different time periods easily can result in “apples and oranges” comparisons.
For example, it would be folly to try to make a precise comparison between the current 8.5 percent unemployment rate and the 21.7 percent rate in 1934. For one thing, before 1948 the data included people aged 14 and up; since then only those 16 and older are included. However, the historical data have some value as long as the survey framework is generally the same. Any reasonable person would conclude that employment conditions were pretty awful in 1934. Exactly how awful compared to today’s conditions we cannot tell.
Reasonable people also could see that conditions were very good in 1952 when the rate was 3 percent. Certainly those of us who lived back then know times were much better than they are now. Again, however, the two rates are not strictly comparable. The Bureau of Labor Statistics made a major reform in the calculation system in 1994. There have been minor adjustments since, but no big change. Matching our present 8.5 rate with the 4.6 percent calculated for 2006 before the Great Recession started thus is very close to an “apples to apples” comparison.
The Times editorial writer casts aside the work of civil service statisticians and analysts over many years and cites statistics from an obscure web site claiming the “true” unemployment rate currently is 11.4 percent. Oh? There is no such thing as a statistically derived “true” unemployment rate for the United States.
Saying any numerical value is better than the one the government provides is irrelevant when considering the important reasons an indicator was developed in the first place. We should be interested in a rate that gives a decent portrayal of the unemployment situation and is the best available indicator of trends. The Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics give us useful numbers. The Washington Times does not.
The Geezer has deep sympathy for anyone struggling to find satisfactory employment and strongly supports efforts by both business and government to create new jobs. An 8.5 unemployment rate is not good any way you look at it. But directly or indirectly bashing those who work diligently to bring us the best rate data they can assemble does no one a service.