Editorial: Lower unemployment rate inspires cuckoos
The Editorial BoardShare
Former GE chief Jack Welch tweeted then retreated on conspiracy theory.
Former GE CEO Jack Welch in 2009.
(Photo: Joe Raedle, Getty Images)
- Initial jobs numbers are like a rough draft.
- Conservative echo chamber turned Welch's tweet into a conspiracy.
- Next unemployment report coming out 4 days before the election.
7:39PM EDT October 14. 2012 - When the unemployment rate suddenly dropped from 8.1% to 7.8% two Fridays ago, it was a surprise, but those who've seen jobless numbers lurch up and down took it in stride. The initial jobs numbers behind the unemployment rate are like a rough draft. They eventually get revised twice, and the change can be hundreds of thousands of jobs.That view wasn't universal, though. Some people went — it's hard to think of a better way to put this — a little nuts. An angry Jack Welch, the former chief executive of General Electric, was sure he smelled a rat, and he fired off an incendiary tweet: "Unbelievable jobs numbers. ... These Chicago guys will do anything. ... Can't debate so change numbers."
ANOTHER VIEW: Numbers just don't match up
Translation: President Obama's hometown is Chicago, and he had just turned in an inert performance in his first debate with GOP challenger Mitt Romney, so the White House had deliberately cooked the numbers to help the president.
Naturally enough, the conservative echo chamber picked up Welch's tweet and quickly turned the affair into a conspiracy. If there's a contest at the end of this campaign year for dumbest and most irresponsible things said by people who ought to know better, this will be a contender.
Under fire, Welch admitted he had no evidence that anyone was manipulating the jobs numbers, or that the respected numbers crunchers at the Bureau of Labor Statistics and other agencies were engaged in a plot that would be cause for terminating their professional careers. He implausibly claimed he hadn't been talking about the White House. He resorted to the discredited old dodge that he was only "raising a question."
And, ironically, this would be the same Jack Welch who as CEO was known as "Neutron Jack" because of his knack for making jobs disappear.
If there was a positive side to this, it was that Welch's tweet-rage provoked conversation about the way statisticians measure joblessness, and how difficult it is to accurately count how many people have jobs every month. The government does it with two surveys of 60,000 or more households (Who has a job?) and about 140,000 public and private employers (How many people work for you?).
Sometimes the results don't match. About a decade ago, the numbers diverged by more than 2 million jobs for almost two years before coming back into sync as the economy was recovering from a recession. It's the household survey that yields the jobless rate, so if that one diverges from the employer survey, as it did two Fridays ago, things could look strange.
Veteran economists know we've been here before, and candidates have whined about it before.
Critics more thoughtful than Welch have long complained about flaws in the system. It underrepresents people who have quit looking for work and overrepresents those with tiny amounts of part-time work. Those are well-known problems. But whatever its flaws, they are constant. The data are compiled by professionals, not by political appointees. They are a non-partisan scorecard.
More important for now is what the longer-term trend in the number says: that the economy is recovering, but very slowly.
The sudden fall in the unemployment rate might have robbed Romney of one of his best lines — that joblessness hasn't dipped under 8% since Obama has been president. But things are still rough out there, and likely to improve slowly, no matter who is elected.
As for the conspiracy theorists, they'll be back four days before the election, when the next round of numbers comes out. It's just impossible to know which side will be spinning fables because the numbers could as easily go up as down.
The Editorial Board
USA TODAY's editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff. Most editorials are coupled with an opposing view -- a unique USA TODAY feature.
Send The Editorial Board a Message
Send the author a Message
Your email has been succesfully delivered.