Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize-winning economist and former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Bill Clinton, responded Saturday to baseless allegations that the Obama administration may have manipulated the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ monthly jobs report to make it look better than it actually was, calling those allegations “literally absurd.”
In an interview on Up w/ Chris Hayes Saturday, Stiglitz said the accusations leveled by Republicans and their supporters on Wall Street – including Rep. Allen West of Florida, former General Electric CEO Jack Welch and former Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes – were outlandish and contradicted a broad consensus among economists of all party affiliations that the jobs numbers are not influenced by political calculations.
“No president, maybe except Nixon, would actually try to change what the Bureau of Labor Statistics does,” Stiglitz said. “These are really independent statistical agencies, and the idea that they would do that is, I say, literally absurd.”
Stiglitz recalled his time working in the Clinton White House, explaining that there was a long history of insulating the economic metrics from political pressure. “The history and the culture of these independent agencies is extraordinarily strong,” Stiglitz said. “We felt absolutely very strongly, and I think this is bipartisan, that you don’t monkey with the numbers, because they would destroy your credibility. And the one thing that we still have is credibility in the numbers.”
When, for example, the Bureau of Economic Affairs adopted a new methodology for calculating the Gross Domestic Product that resulted in lower GDP growth, the agency resisted considerable pushback from then-President Clinton, who was concerned about the potential impact on his re-election campaign. “The president was furious, because everyone wants a good growth number. They were coming up with a number that was lower,” Stiglitz said. President Clinton, he added, “said, ‘Can’t you stop this? Can’t you tell them to wait until after the election? We said ‘No, they’re independent agencies, we can’t touch them.’”
Nonetheless, a number of prominent conservatives have continued to insist that the new jobs numbers, which show the unemployment rate has dipped below eight percent for the first time during Obama’s presidency, must be skewed. Some have even gone so far as to offer alternative metrics, just as they have with national polls, which Republicans insist must be wrong because they show President Obama leading Mitt Romney.
Stiglitz said those efforts were symptomatic of a broader trend among Republicans.
“There’s this old debate about, ‘we can’t choose our facts, we can choose our interpretation of the facts,’” Stiglitz said. “And what they’re trying to move to is the direction where we get to choose our facts.”