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.

Some of the harshest criticism of President Bush's State of the Union address came from unlikely quarters. Andrew Sullivan dubbed it Bush's worst yet, in part because he displayed "complete insouciance toward the deficit and, more importantly, toward those who have not yet benefited from the economic recovery. ... To brag about a growing economy without some kind of passage of empathy for those still struggling reveals major political obtuseness."

The job market is plainly pretty lame. The economy created just 1,000 payroll jobs in December, even though economists had expected it to create at least 150,000. The unemployment rate fell to 5.7 percent, but largely because hundreds of thousands of Americans stopped looking for work.

Advertisement

For Bush to acknowledge this directly in a State of the Union address would only provide an opening to opponents. But it's not just politics—obtuse or astute—that account for the president's skirting of the issue, or so the administration says. According to Bush and his supporters, the problem isn't the weak job market. It's the data that suck.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics measures employment in two ways. In the Establishment Survey, it gathers payroll data from 400,000 companies and then estimates how many Americans have jobs at companies. The payroll figures are derived from these numbers. The Household Survey is based on surveys of individuals in 60,000 households, and it produces the unemployment rate. Occasionally, the two surveys show divergent trends in job growth, and the payroll survey has been known to undercount jobs when an economy is coming out of recession. Last October, I dubbed the debate over the two surveys "antidisestablishmentarianism."

In the past two weeks, antidisestablishmentarianism has become the creed the White House and its sympathizers are busy broadcasting. After the December employment was released on Jan. 9, Brian Wesbury, chief economist at Griffin, Kubik, Stephens & Thomson, Inc. and a noted antidisestablishmentarian wrote in this report: "there is something terribly wrong with the non-farm payroll statistics and the Establishment survey that produces them. We find it very hard to believe that the December increase of just 1,000 jobs was anywhere near accurate."

In his brief reaction, Treasury Secretary John Snow engaged in another favorite antidisestablishmentarian tactic. He changed the subject from unfavorable payrolls to the more favorable unemployment rate. "Following five months of job growth, the unemployment rate fell in December to a 14-month low."

Next, N. Gregory Mankiw, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, tried to put an epistemological sheen on the antidisestablishmentarian line in an interview with Louis Uchitelle of the New York Times:

[Mankiw]said in an interview that the official job count showing 1,000 new jobs in December was not accurate by itself. "I view all economic statistics as imperfect," he said. "They have to be taken with a grain of salt." In challenging the reliability of the official count, Mr. Mankiw sought to water down its message, which is that 2.3 million jobs have disappeared since President Bush took office in January 2001. ... The household survey has employment rising by 689,000 jobs in the Bush years. "I am not going to take a stand as to which survey is more meaningful," Mr. Mankiw said—challenging in effect the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Congressional Budget Office, which have declared the establishment survey the more reliable one.

The comparatively strong Household Survey figures were also one of the reasons cited by Republicans in Congress when they decided not to extend unemployment benefits last month.

Last night, Bush didn't mention many specifics about jobs figures other than to note that "Productivity is high, and jobs are on the rise." (Of course, high productivity is one reason that jobs may not be on the rise.) His grab bag of proposals called "Jobs for the 21st Century"—more emphasis on reading and math in schools, encouraging science professionals to teach in high schools, more Pell Grants, and more cash for community colleges—dodged the question of employment doldrums.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?
Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
  Business
Buy a Small Business
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 PM Inking the Deal Why tattoo parlors are a great small-business bet.
  Life
Outward
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?