On the first Friday of every month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases a report on monthly U.S. job totals and the nation’s unemployment rate. In the most recent report, the rate was 5.3% – its lowest point in more than seven years, and far from its peak of 10% in 2009.
In Republican circles, this poses a bit of a problem. President Obama and his agenda are supposed to be causing an economic nightmare of historic proportions, with “job creators” crying over their balance sheets when they’re not being dragged into the streets for their ritual tar-and-feathering. With job creation improving so much, so quickly, conservatives find themselves looking for new ways to talk about the issue.
For some, conspiracy theories are a convenient crutch – that rascally White House, the argument goes, must be manipulating the data to fool everyone – while other Republicans make the case that there’s a difference between the unemployment rate and the real unemployment rate.
Consider GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump’s comments to Time magazine this week:
“We have a real unemployment rate that’s probably 21%. It’s not 6. It’s not 5.2 and 5.5. Our real unemployment rate – in fact, I saw a chart the other day, our real unemployment – because you have ninety million people that aren’t working. Ninety-three million to be exact. If you start adding it up, our real unemployment rate is 42%.”
Note, over the course of a few seconds, Trump said the “real unemployment rate” doubled from 21% to 42%. That escalated quickly.
We’re left with two very different sets of numbers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Labor Department have official data that shows a rate of 5.3%. On the other hand, Donald Trump “saw a chart the other day” and came up with 42%.
I’d ordinarily just shrug this off as Trump being Trump, but with so many conservatives looking for ways to question good news, it’s worth pausing to appreciate what they’re trying to say.
Trump’s numbers aren’t completely made up. When the GOP candidate talks about “our real unemployment rate,” he points to the 93 million Americans who, in reality, do not have a job.
But as the Wall Street Journal explained, the details matter.
[M]any people without jobs are teenagers and retirees…. The Labor Department doesn’t consider these people unemployed for a reason: Your kid brother who is a high school junior and my grandma who just turned 88? They’re not considered unemployed, for a very good and very obvious reason!
Right. For Donald Trump, the “real” unemployment rate should include kids in high school and seniors who’ve retired from the work force. That strikes me as a little silly, but your mileage may vary.
If conservatives want to make the case that the official unemployment rate – the U-3 rate for you wonks out there – is not the best metric for understanding the health of the job market, I’m not unsympathetic to the argument. As regular readers know, I’m far more interested in whether jobs are actually being created than whether the rate, which only counts those actively looking for a job, is inching higher or lower.
But let’s not play political games with the data, pretending there’s a “real” unemployment rate that should include octogenarians.