Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

Why Jack Welch Has No Clue About Jobs Numbers


Jack Welch, the former chief executive of General Electric, was unhappy that the Labor Department reported a 0.3 percentage point decline in the unemployment rate on Friday. In fact, he was sufficiently unhappy that he accused the Obama Administration of using its control over the Labor Department to cook the numbers in a tweet just after the unemployment rate was reported. He even repeated the claim in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece on Wednesday.

Perhaps Welch could get away with this sort of temper tantrum nonsense when he was running one of the biggest companies in the world, but he will only get ridicule pushing this line in policy debates. Either Welch doesn’t have any clue about how the unemployment data are collected, or he is just a liar.

First, it is important to understand that the Bureau of Labor Statistics — the division of the Labor Department that reports data on unemployment — is run by career civil servants. Ordinarily, the commissioner is a well-respected academic economist who is appointed by the president. However, since the previous commissioner left this year, John Galvin, a career civil servant, stepped up to fill the role of acting commissioner. This means the bureau does not have a single political appointee.

It is also important to understand the way the data for the survey are compiled and published. The survey involves hundreds of people at various stages in the process of collecting and compiling the data. Even if Galvin or some other top official in the bureau wanted to lie about the numbers, they couldn’t possibly do it alone.

Suppose they just changed the unemployment rate from a “true” rate of 8.1% to a bogus 7.8% rate. They would have the problem that this 7.8% number was inconsistent with the data on unemployment rates for whites and African-Americans. Or it would turn out to be inconsistent with the data on unemployment for young people and old people.

If the perp just changed the overall unemployment rate, hundreds of experts would quickly find that the numbers did not add up. The drop in the unemployment rate would not be consistent with other data in the survey. This would be easily detected.

In order to successfully manipulate the data, it would be necessary to change hundreds of numbers that get reported each month. This would require the cooperation of dozens of top people at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Maybe in Welch’s world, it is possible to go around with a big wad of money and buy off people at the drop of a hat, but the idea that someone from the Obama Administration wandered through the top echelons of the Bureau of Labor Statistics to buy their cooperation in fixing the unemployment numbers is absurd on its face. Perhaps someone could be found who would be willing to be bought, but the rest would be singing their story on the national news.

The other problem with Welch’s charge is that he obviously has no knowledge of the unemployment series itself. In fact, it is common for the numbers to jump around. He found it incredible that the unemployment rate fell by 0.5 percentage points over two months when the economy appears to be growing slowly.

How about when it fell by 0.7 percentage points from November 2010 to January 2011, when growth was also very weak? Was this political manipulation of the data? On the other side, the unemployment rate jumped by 0.2 percentage points in the summer of 1996, when the economy was growing at a 7.1% annual rate.

If Welch knew the data at all or bothered to talk to someone who knew the data before he made his outlandish charges, he would realize that the unemployment rate is an erratic series. It moves around in unpredictable ways.

I am on record as saying that Friday’s drop in the unemployment rate was a statistical fluke. So was the 0.1 percentage point rise reported for July. But the economy has been adding 150,000 jobs per month, which is consistent with a declining unemployment rate. To get a full picture of the economy, you have to study the all the data and try to put together pieces of the puzzle. That may not fit Welch’s political agenda, but that is the world we live in.

The economists and statisticians at the Bureau of Labor Statistics may not be the most exciting people in the world, but they are honest. And for that, we should be very grateful. When we get data from them, we know that it has not been doctored for political purposes.

Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy and False Profits: Recoverying From the Bubble Economy.

This column originally appeared in CNN online.

Clearance Sale of Vintage
CounterPunch T-Shirts!

We’ve marked down some of CounterPunch’s most popular t-shirts to only $8.00, including the CP shirt featuring Alexander Cockburn’s own scrawl.

Dean Baker is a macroeconomist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. He previously worked as a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute and an assistant professor at Bucknell University.

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


October 27, 2016
Paul Street
An Identity-Politicized Election and World Series Lakefront Liberals Can Love
Matthew Stevenson
Sex and the Presidential City
Jim Kavanagh
Tom Hayden’s Haunting
CJ Hopkins
The Pathologization of Dissent
Mike Merryman-Lotze
The Inherent Violence of Israel’s Gaza Blockade
Robert Fisk
Is Yemen Too Much for the World to Take?
Shamus Cooke
Stopping Hillary’s Coming War on Syria
Jan Oberg
Security Politics and the Closing of the Open Society
Ramzy Baroud
The War on UNESCO: Al-Aqsa Mosque is Palestinian and East Jerusalem is Illegally Occupied
Colin Todhunter
Lower Yields and Agropoisons: What is the Point of GM Mustard in India?
Norman Pollack
The Election: Does It Matter Who Wins?
Nyla Ali Khan
The Political and Cultural Richness of Kashmiriyat
Barbara Nimri Aziz
“It’s Only a Car!”
October 26, 2016
John W. Whitehead
A Deep State of Mind: America’s Shadow Government and Its Silent Coup
Eric Draitser
Dear Liberals: Trump is Right
Anthony Tarrant
On the Unbearable Lightness of Whiteness
Mark Weisbrot
The Most Dangerous Place in the World: US Pours in Money, as Blood Flows in Honduras
Chris Welzenbach
The Establishment and the Chattering Hack: a Response to Nicholas Lemann
Luke O'Brien
The Churchill Thing: Some Big Words About Trump and Some Other Chap
Sabia Rigby
In the “Jungle:” Report from the Refugee Camp in Calais, France
Linn Washington Jr.
Pot Decriminalization Yields $9-million in Savings for Philadelphia
Pepe Escobar
“America has lost” in the Philippines
Pauline Murphy
Political Feminism: the Legacy of Victoria Woodhull
Lizzie Maldonado
The Burdens of World War III
David Swanson
Slavery Was Abolished
Thomas Mountain
Preventing Cultural Genocide with the Mother Tongue Policy in Eritrea
Colin Todhunter
Agrochemicals And The Cesspool Of Corruption: Dr. Mason Writes To The US EPA
October 25, 2016
David Swanson
Halloween Is Coming, Vladimir Putin Isn’t
Hiroyuki Hamada
Fear Laundering: an Elaborate Psychological Diversion and Bid for Power
Priti Gulati Cox
President Obama: Before the Empire Falls, Free Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal
Kathy Deacon
Plus ça Change: Regime Change 1917-1920
Robin Goodman
Appetite for Destruction: America’s War Against Itself
Richard Moser
On Power, Privilege, and Passage: a Letter to My Nephew
Rev. William Alberts
The Epicenter of the Moral Universe is Our Common Humanity, Not Religion
Dan Bacher
Inspector General says Reclamation Wasted $32.2 Million on Klamath irrigators
David Mattson
A Recipe for Killing: the “Trust Us” Argument of State Grizzly Bear Managers
Derek Royden
The Tragedy in Yemen
Ralph Nader
Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think
Norman Pollack
Centrist Fascism: Lurching Forward
Guillermo R. Gil
Cell to Cell Communication: On How to Become Governor of Puerto Rico
Mateo Pimentel
You, Me, and the Trolley Make Three
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
October 24, 2016
John Steppling
The Unwoke: Sleepwalking into the Nightmare
Oscar Ortega
Clinton’s Troubling Silence on the Dakota Access Pipeline
Patrick Cockburn
Aleppo vs. Mosul: Media Biases