Bush's line on jobs.

Commentary about business and finance.
Jan. 21 2004 2:34 PM

It's the Data, Stupid

How Bush explains away America's employment problems.

(Continued from Page 1)

At this late date, changing the subject and casting doubt on the validity of payroll numbers seems like the best strategy for Bush appointees and supporters. It's looking ever more likely that Bush will indeed be the first president since Herbert Hoover to preside over a four-year term in which payroll jobs fell. Does that sound a wee bit demagogic? Absolutely. Under Hoover, the nation lost 24 percent of its payroll jobs. Under Bush, the United States has lost fewer than 2 percent. But it's effective rhetoric.

The divergence between the payroll and household figures does raise some interesting questions over which economists will surely puzzle. Has the slack corporate job market turned millions of Americans into self-employed entrepreneurs who don't get counted in the payroll survey? Have American companies simply become so ingenious at wringing productivity out of existing workers and technology that they don't need to hire? It's a debate that won't be settled for at least a year, when this year's figures get revised. It's possible the antidisestablishmentarians may indeed be right. But at this point, the official disdain for the payroll survey and the embrace of the Household Survey is more about belief than data.

Daniel Gross is a longtime Slate contributor. His most recent book is Better, Stronger, Faster. Follow him on Twitter.

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