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The Bureau of Lies and Spin: A Guide to Understanding the Unemployment Statistics

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Last week I wrote a piece about Congress: its failure to take responsibility for problems, the way its un-shining example has a tendency to corrupt all our other national institutions.

The post garnered a remarkable number of comments, the majority of which agreed strongly with the view I expressed. Just one thing disturbed me, however, which was the number of people who assumed I was taking a partisan position. To remind you: the article argued strongly for a full and open enquiry into the Fast and Furious affair. I guess a lot of people reasoned as follows, 'The Republicans are bashing the Democrats over this enquiry, this guy Feierstein wants an enquiry, so he must be a Republican.'

I don't blame people for making these assumptions. Our whole country has become infected with this kind of logic. Our entire political debate has caught the virus. Yet it makes no sense. No sense at all. Here are two facts and one conclusion. Fact One: A federal agent has been shot dead. Fact Two: there are allegations -- which may be true or false -- that the gun used to shoot him was in circulation only because of an ineptly managed operation conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco. Conclusion: These allegations are serious enough to deserve an open investigation, period. Partisan bickering and political spin is simply a diversion from the action that a dead federal agent deserves -- and the truth that the American people require.

I say all this because I'm about to call attention to another government department. That department is the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Now I know that Republicans are currently bashing President Obama over his jobs record. I know that Obama is bashing back. But, people, the issue at stake is the creation of jobs in America and the way those things are being recorded and reported. The issues I'm about to address were present under George W. Bush. They haven't changed under Barack Obama. The depression which struck this country in the wake of financial crisis might have peaked under a Democrat, but it was born in a Republican era. If you yourself are so partisan that you want to make fine distinctions about these things, you should go ahead and make them. Me: I see two peas in a pod.

Good. Preamble over. Here's the issue. The number of jobs created in America stood at 80,000 in June. That wasn't nearly enough to budge the jobless rate, which remains stuck at a high 8.2%. (Mitt Romney's comment: 'another kick in the gut to middle-class families.' Barack Obama's rejoinder: 'a step in the right direction' whilst he acknowledged, 'it's still tough out there.')

But let's put the partisan spin-factory to one side, and instead have a think about the number of jobs being reported. Businesses are born and businesses die. When a business is occupied with either of those processes, it has better things to do than call up the BLS and discuss hires and fires. The BLS therefore estimates the net impact on the joblessness figures of the birth and death of businesses. You can read its full discussion here, but the key line says:

'There is an unavoidable lag between an establishment opening for business and its appearing on the sample frame and being available for sampling. Because new firm births generate a portion of employment growth each month, non-sampling methods must be used to estimate this growth.'

A non-sampling method: that's geek-speak for 'guess.' We don't know how many new jobs are being created or lost by business churn, so we've got to guess. And you want to know the BLS's estimate for the number of such jobs 'created' (net of losses) in June? Answer: 124,000. In May, the answer was over 200,000.

So, in crude terms, the net jobs growth reported by the BLS -- the same one being lambasted by Romney and praised by Obama -- is only in positive territory at all because of some number that's simply a guess. A smart guess probably. One made by intelligent statisticians... but still. In this economy? With Europe in turmoil, China slowing, the country heading for a fiscal cliff which could thrust us back into recession, plus massive uncertainty over the path of healthcare costs per employee? The BLS has never been in this position before, because the economy hasn't been. And after all, who in their right minds would be hiring new staff given these conditions? Most savvy businesspeople will be watching, waiting... deferring spending and hiring.

The truth is employment in the U.S. might be growing or shrinking. We just plain don't know. What we do know is that if you add together the unemployed, workers discouraged from seeking work, plus those working part-time when they'd prefer to be working full time... you have an 'underemployment' rate of at least 15% -- while our labor force participation rates are kicking around decade long-lows. These things are terrible economic news, but they're terrible on a human scale too. Let's consider the graduates looking to repay the more than $1 trillion in government-guaranteed student loans. These graduates are America's future. Those BLS data points represent human lives, human potential. And the outlook is grim.

To repeat, I'm not making a partisan point here. I'm making a bigger one. The American economy is in deep trouble. The reported data we have is unreliable. What we do know is that we have too much debt, too much money printing, a culture of total irresponsibility on Wall Street and consequently an absence of credibility in the financial and political promises that underpin our economy. All this, plus a political culture which is not addressing these things in a mature and responsible way.

This country's in a mess. And partisan bickering will never pull us out of it. We all need to change our mindsets. I voted for change in the last election and I believe that today's DC landscape is the most polarized in my lifetime. Are things better? Are we going to be offered a real choice in this election year? And where can I get a refund?