Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The 7.8 percent dissolution:
Politicizing the unemployment rate

THERE'S NOTHING like good news to make people a little ... unhinged. The United States got some on when the Labor Department reported that the U.S. unemployment rate dropped to 7.8 percent last month, falling below 8 percent for the first time since Barack Obama took office as president.

Conservatives in the business media and the political arena lined up for the expected ritual denunciation of the best good news the economy had in quite a while. But for all the gnashing of teeth from business tycoons and the conservative media, the new unemployment figures are most problematic — and potentially damaging — for the man who built his campaign around those numbers being as bad as possible: Mitt Romney.

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Explaining the rate’s drop from 8.1 percent, the Labor Department said Friday that U.S. employers added 114,000 jobs in September. And icing on the icing on the cake: The agency also reported that the national economy actually created 86,000 more jobs in July and August than originally estimated.

It’s a great day for America, right? Apparently, that depends on who you are. Some people don’t know what to do with good news.

No sooner did we get the figures from Bureau of Labor Statistics, which operates as part of the Department of Labor, than the conservative long knives came out.

Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric and a longtime champion of conservative politics, tweeted his reaction: “Unbelievable jobs numbers..these Chicago guys will do anything..can't debate so change numbers.”

It was a doubly nasty cheap shot, one that impugned the reputation of the Obama administration and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which operates in a nonpartisan fashion. Still something of a showboat years after exiting the high-profile GE gig and writing several successful books, Welch took to the airwaves to make his case.

“I have no idea where this number came from,” he told the folks in the friendly confines of Fox News. “I don't know what the right number is, but I'll tell you these numbers don’t smell right when you think about where the economy is right now.”

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ON MSNBC, Welch brawled with “Hardball” host and network alpha male Chris Matthews: “...What evidence do you have that they got to the [Bureau of Labor Statistics]?” he said.

“I have no evidence to prove that, I just raised the question,” Welch said.

“No, you didn't raise the question,” Matthews said. “You were asserting ... did you talk to any economists?”

"I know that these numbers are gathered by a series of wild assumptions," Welch said.
"Do you want to take that back?" Matthews asked. "This is an assertion that there was jimmying with these numbers."

When Welch laughed, Matthews shouted, "It's not funny, Jack!"

Matthews was right; it way less funny than it was sad that Welch, a proven business leader, the severely conservative gerbil titan of American industry, would take to social media and go on TV to suggest the president of the United States could be part of an attempt to manipulate unemployment statistics with the collusion of a reliably nonpartisan federal agency — and do it without a shred of evidence, with nothing more to support the claim than his intuition, a hunch, the hairs standing up on the back of his neck.

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WORD OF Welch’s shrill defense of his aroused suspicion got around, and fast. The Huffington Post had the headline of the day: “JACK SNAPS.”

Eamon Javers, Washington correspondent for CNBC, tweeted: “These BLS truthers (jobbers?) are starting to make the UFO people look credible. Please produce your evidence.”

As you’d expect, Welch has since walked back his claim. He took to the twitterverse again, on Sunday, denying he had directly accused the Obama White House of anything with his slam against “Chicago guys.”

"Have never commented on White House in any tweets I can recall," Welch tweeted on Sunday.

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Welch wasn’t alone in his thinly veiled whisper of corruption, of course. Stuart Varney at Fox News and Florida GOP Rep. Allen West joined the chorus in suggesting (or, in West’s case, stating “absolutely”) that the Bureau of Labor Statistics cooked the books on the president’s behalf — again with nothing more than a sour cynicism to support their claims.

“I told you they'd get it under 8 percent — they did!” said CNBC’s caffeinated chowderhead analyst Rick Santelli on Friday, barely concealing the disdain he’s had for the Obama administration for years. “You can let America decide how they got there!”

Never mind the fact that, in a 24/7/365 news cycle powered by the informational reach of the Internet, doing something like that would be political suicide; for the Obama White House to do this would be so unnecessary right now.

With a number of polls breaking the president’s way, and even after the early bump for Romney as a result of his popular “win” in the first debate, the prevailing trend remains one that favors the president’s re-election. For Obama to break with his proven methodical, no-shortcuts approach to just about everything that’s important would be a departure so unlikely, it scarcely makes any sense debating it.

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“No president, maybe except Nixon, would actually try to change what the Bureau of Labor Statistics does,” said Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist. “These are really independent agencies and the idea that they would do that is literally absurd,” he said on MSNBC.

“You don't monkey with the numbers, because that would destroy your credibility,” he said.

Others in high economic places said much the same thing. “That's a ludicrous comment. No serious person believes that the Bureau of Labor Statistics manipulates its statistics," said Alan Krueger, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, to Reuters. “The jobs report and all of their other statistics are prepared by career employees. They use the same process every month. They use the same process for Republican and Democratic administrations.”

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SAINT JACK, his corporatist halo badly tarnished, has since decided to take his ball of veiled venom and go home. On Tuesday it was reported that Welch decided to stop writing biweekly columns for Forbes magazine and for the Reuters news agency — both of which were apparently too critical of his tinfoil-hat perspective this close to an election.

Welch confirmed his actions in an e-mail:


It won’t be so easy for Mitt Romney to separate himself from his statements on the economy.

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From almost the day his campaign launched in June 2011, the former Massachusetts governor has used the 8 percent unemployment-rate threshold as a rhetorical weapon, a bludgeon he could use at will against President Obama as a way to advance his own bona fides for the Oval Office.

Never mind how his own reputation as a manager and investor has come under fire in the last year; the foundation of Romney’s campaign, its very reason for being, has relied on the continued stagnation of the economy in order to have any credibility. The 8% number was always the convenient handle, the way to get that across in a shorthand way.

That’s off the table now. The unemployment rate is subject to change, and certainly will next month. But Romney is in the same box he’s been in much of the year: waging a presidential campaign based on fulfillment of a negative. Hoping for the worst is built into his whole campaign.

Now, with a month to go before the next phase of the voting that’s been underway for a month, Romney has to come up with a new threshold, or a new reason why the Obama administration’s policies aren’t working.

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HE'S TRYING. “This is not what a real recovery looks like,” he said in a statement on Friday. And he couldn’t be more wrong. Climbing out of the abyss of 750,000 job losses a month at the end of the Bush administration to a new average of 170,000 private-sector jobs being added every month this year (according to ADP, a private-industry payroll monitor) — this is precisely what a recovery looks like: a gradual but steady reversal of a gradual but steady decline.

As such, it’s a nightmare for Team Romney. The number of unemployed Americans dropped by 456,000 in September to 12.1 million, the lowest number since January 2009, when Obama took office. That number’s something that nobody’s happy with, especially President Obama, who’s said as much many, many times.

But for the next 28 days, and long after his debate bounce wears off, Mitt Romney needs more than the generalities he’s made a campaign stock in trade. Confronting the statistical evidence of an improving economy, he’s got to show how things are so catastrophically bad that the situation calls for a replacement in the White House. The best way to counter the statistical specifics he disagrees with is to cough up some specifics of his own.

Image credits: Welch: MSNBC. U.S. current unemployment rate: Bureau of Labor Statistics. U.S. employment rate 2008-2012: Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, from Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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