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.

Weekend Edition
November 28-30, 2015
Majd Isreb
America’s Spirit, Syrian Connection
Weekend Edition
November 27-29, 2015
Andrew Levine
The Real Trouble With Bernie
Gary Leupp
Ben Carson, Joseph in Egypt, and the Attack on Rational Thought
John Whitbeck
Who’s Afraid of ISIS?
Michael Brenner
Europe’s Crisis: Terror, Refugees and Impotence
Pepe Escobar
Will Chess, Not Battleship, Be the Game of the Future in Eurasia?
Vijay Prashad
Showdown on the Syrian Border
Colin Todhunter
Class, War and David Cameron
Jean Bricmont
The Ideology of Humanitarian Imperialism
Dan Glazebrook
Deadliest Terror in the World: the West’s Latest Gift to Africa
Mats Svensson
Madness in Hebron: Hashem Had No Enemies, Yet Hashem Was Hated
Walter Brasch
Terrorism on American Soil
Louisa Willcox
Grizzly Bears, Dreaming and the Frontier of Wonder
Dave Lindorff
Gen. John Campbell, Commander in Afghanistan and Serial Liar
Michael Welton
Yahweh is Not Exactly Politically Correct
Joseph Natoli
A Politics of Stupid and How to Leave It Behind
Karl Grossman
Our Solar Bonanza!
John Cox
You Should Fear Racism and Xenophobia, Not Syrian Refugees or Muslims
Barrie Gilbert
Sacrificing the Grizzlies of Katmai: the Plan to Turn Brooks Camp Into a Theme
Rev. William Alberts
The Church of “Something Else” in “an Ecclesiastical Desert”
Mark Hand
Escape From New York: the Emancipation of Activist Cecily McMillan
Ramzy Baroud
Forget ISIS: Humanity is at Stake
Andrew Gavin Marshall
Bank Crimes Pay
Elliot Murphy
Cameron’s Syrian Strategy
Thomas S. Harrington
Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe and the Death of Ezra Schwartz
Gareth Porter
How Terror in Paris Calls for Revising US Syria Policy
Michael Perino
The Arc of Instability
Yves Engler
Justin Trudeau and Canada’s Mining Industry
Tom H. Hastings
ISIS and Changing the Game
Lars Jørgensen
Vive la Résistance
John Halle
A Yale Education as a Tool of Power and Privilege
Norman Pollack
Syrian “Civil War”?: No, A Proxy War of Global Confrontation
Sheldon Richman
Let the Refugees In
James Anderson
Reframing Black Friday: an Imperative for Déclassé Intellectuals
Simon Bowring
UN Climate Talks 2009: a Merger of Interest and Indifference
Ron Jacobs
Rosa Luxembourg–From Street Organizer to Street Name
Aidan O'Brien
Same-Sex Sellout in Ireland
David Stocker
Report from the Frontline of Resistance in America
Patrick Bond
China Sucked Deeper Into World Financial Vortex and Vice Versa, as BRICS Sink Fast
James A Haught
The Values of Jesus
Binoy Kampmark
British Austerity: Cutting One’s Own Backyard
Ed Rampell
45 Years: A Rumination on Aging
Charles R. Larson
Chronicle of Sex Reassignment Surgery: Juliet Jacques’s “Trans: a Memoir”
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
CounterPunch’s Favorite Films
November 26, 2015
Ashley Nicole McCray – Lawrence Ware
Decolonizing the History of Thanksgiving