Because data is just fungible to the political leanings of whoever confronts it, we predictably saw a number of conservatives question today’s jobs report, suggesting that the Bureau of Labor Statistics fudged the data to help the President’s re-election campaign. Leading this charge was former GE CEO Jack Welch on Twitter. I think the government should make a deal with Welch – they’ll admit to massaging the data if he cleans up all the PCBs in the Hudson River personally.
On a more serious note, this is really pretty outrageous, and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, whose department includes the BLS, is right to be insulted. The BLS is a civil service agency that until recently was still run by a Bush appointee. It now has a career bureaucrat in charge. The political team plays no role whatsoever in the derivation of or announcement of the jobs data. And if, despite all this, BLS cooked the books, they’re terrible at it, because they shifted the data in the household survey without corresponding in the establishment survey.
Jared Bernstein, a former economic adviser to Vice President Biden, blasted Welch.
“I’m going to say this very starkly. Jack Welch should be ashamed of himself. There’s absolutely no way the Bureau of Labor Statistics cooks these numbers. They have tremendous integrity,” Bernstein says. “I’m sorry he doesn’t like the direction of the numbers. I will very much admit that these numbers jump around from month to month. They do. But to say that these numbers are cooked by the BLS is terribly obfuscating and completely wrong.”
The household data is always known to be noisy, and the payroll data is usually more commonly used by economists. And between revisions and the monthly number, that tells a decent story. That story will get fleshed out in the coming months as the data gets revised, as per the norm. If political observers over-learn the lessons of the BLS report every month, that has nothing to do with its administrators. Overall there are completely plausible explanations for everything in the survey that do not require anyone having to lie to the BLS surveyors or the career economists suddenly manipulating data to get a desired result.
The larger point to be made here is about the questioning of the integrity of an organization that has amassed significant credibility over the years. Whether it’s pollsters or climate scientists or economic data reporters, conservatives have decided, as part of their martyr mentality and anti-intellectualism, to question any number that doesn’t reflect positively on them. You would not hear about book-cooking if the BLS data showed a disappointing report; in fact, you didn’t hear that LAST MONTH, when the initial report for August was disappointing.
This crying foul any time data doesn’t go a conservative’s way has a debilitating effect on our politics. It makes it impossible to govern a country whose two major ideological groups live in different universes with different sets of facts. Conspiracy theorists may be dismissed today, but with each passing month, they gather credibility among like-minded confreres. And the respect for data and verifiable statistical reality dissipates bit by bit. It’s truly sad.