When the nation’s unemployment rate dropped below 8% in 2012, Republicans were outraged, insisting there must have been an elaborate conspiracy to make it seem like the jobs landscape had improved. When the jobless rate fell below 6% last month, Republicans once again clung to conspiracy theories as a way to feel better about the economic data.
We’ll get a new jobs report later this week, but in the meantime, Fox’s Sean Hannity offered an interesting example of the genre on his radio show yesterday.
For context, the Republican host received a call from a listener who reminded him that the U.S. economy added 10.5 million new jobs in recent years. Hannity interrupted her in the hopes of setting the caller straight.
“We have not created ten-and-a-half million new jobs. We have the lowest labor-force participation rate since 1978. There’s all sorts of ways the government plays with statistics. For example, have you noticed late the unemployment rate has gone down, what is it, 5.9% or whatever it happens to be. You would think, ‘Oh, this is a good thing. My government is telling me the unemployment rate is down.’“The government doesn’t count people that are chronically, long-term unemployed. So the number is smoke and mirrors. The number is a lie.”
The problem with analysis like Hannity’s is that it’s based on a kernel of truth – it’s just that he doesn’t understand that truth well enough to get the details right.
The unemployment report is not, in reality, “a lie”; it’s a specific measurement based on a specific criteria. If Hannity wants to argue that it’s not the best metric for measuring the strength of the job market, fine. In fact, I’ve said many times there are better metrics that offer a more accurate look at the jobs picture.
The unemployment rate is one of the more common statistics – it’s the one the public tends to rely on – and Republicans like it when it suits their purposes, but if Hannity wants to make the case that it’s misleading, I’m inclined to agree.
But then he screwed up everything else.
“We have not created ten-and-a-half million new jobs,” Hannity said. “We have the lowest labor-force participation rate since 1978.” This is what folks in the biz call a non sequitur – the first claim has nothing to do with the second.
The labor-force participation rate combines all of the Americans with jobs, adds those currently looking for jobs, and divides the total by the size of the population. The labor-force participation rate has been declining steadily for over a decade, largely as a result of the growing population of seniors retiring and leaving the workforce.
How does a low labor-force participation rate disprove the claim that the economy has created 10.5 million jobs? That’s the problem – one statistic does not negate the other because they’re largely unrelated.
Reality is not in dispute among those who take data seriously: since March 2010, the U.S. private sector has created over 10.3 million jobs. That’s not opinion; it’s just what happened. There’s no value judgment associated with these jobs figures, and there’s nothing partisan or ideological about the raw totals.
“We have not created ten-and-a-half million new jobs. We have the lowest labor-force participation rate since 1978.” This plainly doesn’t make sense. It’s like saying, “One plus two can’t equal three; three is an odd number.” The fact that three is an odd number doesn’t disprove the reality that it is the sum of one and two, and the low labor-force participation rate doesn’t disprove the reality about the number of jobs created.
I can appreciate why good economic news makes folks like Hannity uncomfortable – once the data is accepted as true, it leads to awkward questions about long-held assumptions.
But reality doesn’t much care about long-held assumptions.