Economics Area 51: The Great Labor Statistics Conspiracy

The number of jobs in the U.S. increased by 873,000 jobs in September, and the unemployment rate decreased from 8.1 percent to 7.8 percent.

Coming as it does right before an election, this news has been met with skepticism on the part of those who don’t want the economy to improve. Among these of course is Fox.

An article on Fox’s website implies not so subtly that something fishy is going on. According to Fox, former Congressional Budget Office director Doug Holtz-Eakin said “This must be an anomaly. It is out of line with any of the other data.” Holtz-Eakin noted the household survey is smaller, suggesting it is not as reliable. He called estimate of 873,000 new jobs “implausible.”

Never mind that the economy created 847,000 new jobs just this past January. Or that the economy lost 1,100,000 jobs in January 2009.

I have the utmost respect for the Congressional Budget Office. That said, I might point out that Holtz-Eakin was chief economic policy adviser for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and is now head of the conservative American Action Forum.

As a labor economist, I’m in a position to have an opinion on the jobs numbers. I’ve spent many, many hours poring over the detailed survey data that the Bureau of Labor Statistics produces. Just one month of Current Population Survey data is a 150 megabyte text file.

I’m not saying it would be impossible to falsify something. I suppose nearly anything is possible. But the data is so detailed and complex that it would probably take 873,000 workers just to do it.

And thousands of economics and business researchers scrutinize this data. Dissertations and journal articles rise and fall on it. To alter that data in a way that would fool the thousands of  (often critical) researchers who look at this data in detail would be an incredibly difficult task. It would require so many people to be in on it that it would pretty much be impossible to hide.

It’s a lot like open source software. The whole process is all so transparent that it’s nearly impossible to pull something.

Admittedly, a lot of the new jobs were part-time, and we’d much rather have them be full-time. But part-time is better than none at all. No one’s hoping the economy will pick up more than I am, but, as I’ve pointed out in earlier posts, the Great Recession of 2008-2009 was unprecedented in scale and scope in the post-War period. It’s taking time to recover. But it could have been worse – much worse. If you doubt that, I refer you to the 1930s.

I’ll confess that I haven’t yet dug into the details of the September 2012 labor numbers the way I have with some of the earlier data. But I will. And when I do, if I find anything odd or out of the ordinary, I’ll be the first to point it out.

As an economist, I require – nay, crave – accurate labor data above all else. If there’s the slightest chance I’m not getting it, you’ll be hearing from me loud and clear.

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