Conservative media have a history of dismissing newly released jobs numbers, claiming the government “cooks the books” and “manipulates” the numbers to paint a favorable picture of the Obama administration. In fact, conservatives base their attacks on discredited and faulty claims, and no hard evidence exists to suggest the government's numbers are manipulated.
Conservative Media Claimed Government Is “Cooking The Books” With Data Revisions
Fox's Greta Van Susteren Wondered Whether The Government Is “Cooking The Books.” Discussing “the reliability of the nation's jobless numbers” with Fox Business' Liz MacDonald, Fox News host Greta Van Susteren asked if the government was “cooking the books” or “manipulating the numbers”:
VAN SUSTEREN: Are you ready for this question? Is the government cooking the books? New questions tonight about the reliability of the nation's jobless numbers and unemployment rate. Is the government manipulating the numbers? And could that add up to more economic troubles. Fox Business Network's Liz MacDonald joins us. Liz, is the government cooking the books on some of the numbers we see?
MacDONALD: You know, we are seeing some weird things coming up in the jobs numbers, Greta. And you know, we're taking a dispassionate, kind of clinical look at the jobs numbers and we're seeing some kind of oddities that even Wall Street shops from both sides of the aisle are finding, as well. Take the first-time jobless claims -- in other words, people who are filing for unemployment for the first time.
For 59 of the last 60 weeks, those numbers have been revised higher after the fact. So what that means is, is when you have the present week's number and you compare it to the prior week's number, it looks great because that prior week's number was revised higher. [Fox News, On The Record With Greta Van Susteren, 5/3/12]
Fox's Shannon Bream: “Is It Possible That -- The Politics Play Into The Numbers?” Introducing a discussion on revised unemployment numbers, host Shannon Bream asked: “Is the government cooking the books?” She went on to suggest that “politics play into the numbers”:
BREAM: Is the government cooking the books? New questions to about the reliability of the nation's jobless rates and unemployment. So how do we know if the economy is really improving or not? Louise Story of the “New York Times” joins us now to help break down the numbers. Great to see you tonight. Thanks for coming in. The unemployment numbers are often released and then revised. And we took a look, 63 of the last 64 weeks, the numbers revisited upwards, meaning there were more unemployed people than originally reporter.
BREAM: Is it possible that -- the politics play into the numbers? Or is this hard data? Accountants at work, statisticians are at work, or is there some other outside factor? [Fox News, On The Record With Greta Van Susteren, 5/25/12, via Nexis]
Fox's Steve Doocy: “There's A Million Less People Than We Thought Working ... Some Have Said, That's Kind Of Fishy.” On Fox News' Fox & Friends, co-host Steve Doocy claimed, “There was an adjustment last week ... suddenly, what, over a million people disappeared?” Later, Doocy said, “You know, they take the census every 10 years, and they figured, OK, there's a million less people than we thought working, which some have said, that's kind of fishy.” [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 2/6/12]
Fox's Elizabeth MacDonald Called Government Revisions “Questionable” And Claimed “Statistical Manipulation In The Unemployment Rate.” In a Fox Business article that bore the headline, “Lies, Damned Lies and Government Jobs Data,” Elizabeth Macdonald claimed that there “is statistical manipulation in the unemployment rate” and questioned “the reliability of the data”:
MacDONALD: [T]he last thing the government needs now is market distrust in its job numbers. But, as analysts dig into the government job numbers, questions are increasingly being raised about the reliability of the data, from questionable revisions in the weekly jobless numbers to the odd changes in unemployment rates. For 59 out of the last 60 weeks, the weekly jobless numbers have been revised, after the fact, always in the same direction: higher. That's unheard of. Those revisions higher make the present week's unemployment number look better in comparison, more so since the markets often treat the prior week's revision as an afterthought. And there is statistical manipulation in the unemployment rate, too. The government's reported unemployment number doesn't include people who stopped looking for work, but who want jobs. [Fox Business, 5/2/12]
Reality: Revising Jobs Data Is “Routine” And Improves Reliability
Bureau Of Labor Statistics “Revises Published Estimates To Improve Its Data Series” With Additional Information. The “Frequently Asked Questions” page on the Bureau of Labor Statistics website explains that data revisions are the result of incorporating new information that was previously unavailable, which ultimately improves the data:
The establishment survey revises published estimates to improve its data series by incorporating additional information that was not available at the time of the initial publication of the estimates. The establishment survey revises its initial monthly estimates twice, in the immediately succeeding 2 months, to incorporate additional sample receipts from respondents in the survey ... On an annual basis, the establishment survey incorporates a benchmark revision that re-anchors estimates to nearly complete employment counts available from unemployment insurance tax records. The benchmark helps to control for sampling and modeling error in the estimates. [BLS.gov, accessed 10/3/12]
Wash. Post: “Data Revisions Are Routine.” The Washington Post explained that jobs data revisions are standard and simply indicate that “more survey results” came in:
The data revisions are routine. The Bureau of Labor Statistics forges its first assessment of job growth by surveying businesses and government employers. It revises that several times as more survey results come in.
Then, twice a year, it conducts a far more comprehensive analysis by looking at state unemployment insurance records, which cover nearly every employer. This allows the agency to get a far more precise analysis of how many jobs were gained or lost in a given industry. [The Washington Post, 9/27/12]
Statistician Nate Silver: Revisions “Are Often Quite Substantial; Since 1970, They Have Averaged 54,000 Jobs Per Month.” New York Times political analyst and blogger Nate Silver explained that data revision is nothing new:
Revisions to the government's payroll report are often quite substantial; since 1970, they have averaged 54,000 jobs per month. That means the margin of error on the jobs reports -- enough to cover 95 percent of all possible cases, as would be reported if they were political polls -- is even larger, in excess of 100,000 jobs per month. [The New York Times, 7/6/12]
For more on how the Bureau of Labor Statistics computes unemployment numbers, click here
Conservative Media Seized On Drop In Labor Participation Rate To Call Jobs Data “Phony”
Fox's Eric Bolling: “Are They Playing Around With The Numbers?” Fox News host Eric Bolling cast doubt on the unemployment rate by suggesting the Labor Department was “playing around with the numbers.” He also suggested that because Department of Labor Secretary Hilda Solis “works directly for Obama,” BLS data could not be trusted to be unbiased:
ERIC BOLLING: Four million people have left the workforce. If you add that 4 million people - under President Obama - if you add those 4 million back in, the same amount of jobs, the same number of jobs divided right now among people in the workforce would show about a 12% unemployment rate.
So, are they playing around with the numbers? Look, it's the Bureau of Labor of Statistics. It's supposed to be non-partisan, but that's the Department of Labor, Hilda Solis heads the Department of Labor. Hilda Solis works directly for Obama.
DOOCY: Are you saying they're cooking the books?
BOLLING: I'm saying, there's room for error. There's room. But when you're talking about four million people, how do you know? [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 2/6/12]
Fox's Dick Morris: “The Economic Data That Obama Is Peddling Is Just Phony.” Fox News contributor Dick Morris claimed “the economic data that Obama is peddling is just phony” and called the Bureau of Labor Statistics “B.S.”:
DICK MORRIS: You know, we've reformed welfare and now, apparently, the disability program is taking its place. But the economic data that Obama is peddling is just phony. You start with the unemployment rate. You identify the problem with the denominator because the denominator - there is only the number of people looking for work. And several million people are no longer looking for work and therefore, the denominator has shrunk.
But the numerator is also phony, because at the beginning of 2012, at the end of 2011, they changed the whole method of calculating unemployment, completely changed it. And the previous unemployment data within the mid-nine percent range, now down to 8.3, is not comparable. And the BLS admits that it's B.S., forget the L. [Fox Business, Lou Dobbs Tonight, 2/20/12, via Nexis]
Fox's Sean Hannity: “The Labor Force Participation Rate” Means “These Numbers Are Phony, Fraudulent And Deceptive.” On his Fox News show Hannity, Sean Hannity claimed that the unemployment rate numbers were “phony,” saying, “You know, here's one statistic, the labor force participation rate. If it were at the level it was in January of 2009 when the president took office, right now, the unemployment rate would be 11.2 percent. These numbers are phony, fraudulent, and deceptive. This bothers me, especially heading into these final months of the election.” [Fox News, Hannity, 9/7/12]
Frequent Fox Guest Chris Plante: “People That Are No Longer Being Counted Are No Longer Being Counted, And That's A Big Part Of The Democrats' Phony Math.” On Fox Business' Follow The Money, conservative radio host Chris Plante described “this administration and their advocates out there phonying up these numbers” because “the people that are no longer being counted are no longer being counted, and that's a big part of the Democrats' phony math here”:
CHRIS PLANTE: Yes. What we're listening to is Democrat maths, Democrat economics and Democrat politics all bundled into one crazy little package. The reality is, and David knows this, is that the number of people that have dropped out of the workforce, the people that are no longer eligible for unemployment, the people that are no longer being counted are no longer being counted, and that's a big part of the Democrats' phony math here.
The reality is that the overarching economic philosophy, economic model that the Obama administration brought to Washington, DC is the source of the problem. And until we deal with the source of the problem, we're not going to get the economy or unemployment back on track. And forget about -- you cited the Bureau of Labor Statistics, this is the Obama administration's Bureau of Labor Statistics coming up with these figures, but you are going to hear this administration and their advocates out there phonying up these numbers and trying to convince the American people that all indicators are good, that all arrows are green, that everything is headed in the right direction when it's not. [Fox Business, Follow The Money, 1/11/12, via Nexis]
Rush Limbaugh: “1.2 Million Were Simply Erased By The Government ... The Bottom Line Is These Numbers Are Still Being Monkeyed Around With.” Rush Limbaugh claimed the unemployment numbers “just don't add up” and “Obama is monkeying the numbers here”:
LIMBAUGH: [I]f you were here last Friday and Thursday, remember we focused not on the 243,000 jobs that were gained or reportedly gained, but rather on the raw numbers, the 2.5 million fewer jobs there were between December of last year, January of this year, just the raw numbers, 2.5 million fewer jobs. And of that 2.5 million, 1.2 million were simply erased by the government, simply erased. They no longer exist. Labor force participation rate.
LIMBAUGH: This is so intricately woven, this web of deceit that you can actually take these numbers (if I wanted to) and I could show you where withholding numbers revenue is actually down a little bit for the information so far that we have for January. So, anyway, we'll try to make some sense out of that as the program unfolds. But regardless the employment situation in the country is nowhere near as robust and rosy. The bottom line is this in a nutshell. The withholding tax receipts number doesn't line up with employment. It doesn't line up. The withholding doesn't line up with the employment numbers, or if you want to cast it as the unemployment numbers. They just don't add up. It's still very confusing. And so games are being played. It's an election year. This Catholic Church is the same thing.
Obama is monkeying the numbers here, jimmying around with things in an election year designed to make things look better than they are, projected to be better than they are ... So the bottom line is these numbers are still being monkeyed around with and jimmied and (I think) made up, manipulated, or what have you. Can't trust them. [Premiere Radio Networks, The Rush Limbaugh Show, 7/2/12]
Reality: Changes In Labor Force Are Due To Demographics
Wash. Post: “The Percentage Of Americans In The Labor Force Has Been Declining For More Than A Decade” Because Of “Demographics.” The Washington Post's economic blog Wonkblog explained that the decline in labor force participation is due to “long-run demographic trends that have nothing to do with the current economy”:
The percentage of Americans in the labor force has been declining for more than a decade.
[A] number of economists are arguing that the recession is distracting people from the real story -- long-run demographic trends that have nothing to do with the current economy. Baby boomers are starting to retire en masse, which means that there are fewer eligible American workers.
Demographics have always played a big role in the rise and fall of the labor force. Between 1960 and 2000, the labor force in the United States surged from 59 percent to a peak of 67.3 percent. That was largely due to the fact that more women were entering the labor force while improvements in health and information technology allowed Americans to work more years.
But since 2000, the labor force rate has been steadily declining as the baby-boom generation has been retiring. Because of this, the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago expects the labor force participation rate to be lower in 2020 than it is today, regardless of how well the economy does.
In a March report titled “Dispelling an Urban Legend,” Dean Maki, an economist at Barclays Capital, found that demographics accounted for a majority of the drop in the participation rate since 2002. [The Washington Post, Wonkblog, 5/4/12]
Bureau Of Labor Statistics: Participation In The Labor Force Peaked In 2000 And Has Been Decreasing Ever Since. From an article by economist Mitra Toossi in the Bureau of Labor Statistics publication Monthly Labor Review:
The slower growth of the labor force is primarily the result of a slower rate of growth in the U.S. population and a noticeable decrease in the labor force participation rate. The civilian noninstitutional population 16 years and older had an annual growth rate of 1.1 percent from 2000 to 2010, but is projected to grow by a lesser 1.0 percent during 2010-2020. (See table 2.)
In addition, the labor force participation rate started a downward trend in 2000, and the decrease accelerated during the 2007-2009 recession and its aftermath. As a result, the labor force participation rate declined by 2.4 percentage points over the 2000-2010 period and is projected to drop by another 2.2 percentage points between 2010 and 2020. These two declining factors lead to a projected annual growth rate of only 0.7 percent for the labor force from 2010 to 2020, a 0.1-percent drop from the annual growth rate exhibited in the 2000-2010 timeframe. [BLS.gov, January 2012 (emphasis added)]
CBO: “Demographic Effect Has Already Reduced [Labor Force Participation] By About 0.5 Percentage Points Since 2007.” From a March Congressional Budget Office background paper titled “CBO's Labor Force Projections Through 2021”:
CBO estimates that the demographic effect has already reduced the overall rate of participation by about 0.5 percentage points since 2007 and that it will do so by an additional 1.2 points by 2016 and by another 1.4 points between 2016 and 2021 (see Figure 3). Thus, demographics account for slightly more than the entire projected decline of 3.0 percentage points in the aggregate participation rate between 2007 and 2021. [CBO.gov, 3/2011]
Economists: Labor Participation Rate Is “Where It Should Be”
Economist Paul Krugman: Conservatives “Keep Trotting Out The Same Old Bogosity, No Matter How Many Times It Has Been Refuted.” In a February 5 blog post, Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote:
First, about that jobs report: all the usual suspects have jumped on the routine BLS population adjustment to claim that the numbers were cooked. The real story here is that the BLS estimates unemployment based on a monthly survey; this tells us what fraction of workers are unemployed. To turn that into a number of unemployed, the BLS estimates total working-age population; but it updates those estimates only once a year. So there's usually a step up or down in the totals each January, signifying nothing.
Back in the Bush years there were a lot of bogus claims of huge job growth reflecting a step up in the population numbers. Now we have Rush Limbaugh, Fox, etc., claiming that a step down somehow implies fake calculations. Still not true. And the thing that makes this so tiring is that they keep trotting out the same old bogosity, no matter how many times it has been refuted. [The New York Times, The Conscience of a Liberal, 2/5/12]
Economist Brian Wesbury: “Data From 1995 And 2005 Suggest The Participation Rate Is Right About Where It Should Be.” In a report released by First Trust Portfolios, economist Brian Wesbury, a member of the Academic Advisory Council of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, explained that “the [labor force] participation rate is right about where it should be.” From First Trust's report:
In his response to the State of the Union Address last week, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels said that the “percentage of Americans with a job is the lowest in decades.” This echoes the focus of many bearish analysts on the labor force participation rate, which is the share of the population that is either working or looking for work. Participation was only 64.1% in 2011, the lowest since 1983.
The bears don't care that in 2011 private payrolls increased 160,000 per month and the unemployment rate fell almost a full percentage point. They don't even care that the labor force actually grew. They argue that the labor force isn't growing fast enough and if it had grown as fast as population growth, the unemployment rate would be significantly higher. But, even though the labor force participation rate is the lowest in a generation, it is not the negative silver bullet that bearish analysts think. Data from 1995 and 2005 suggest the participation rate is right about where it should be. [First Trust Portfolios, 2/2/12]
Conservative Media Claimed Data Is “Fabricated” To Help Obama
Fox's Bolling: “I Honestly Think” BLS Is “Becoming A Partisan Department.” After casting doubt on the number of unemployed, Bolling claimed the BLS is “becoming a partisan department within the administration”:
BOLLING: The Bureau of Labor Statistics that puts out the unemployment rate every month, they have a lot of leeway in that number, people leaving the workforce, millions of people left the workforce over the last three years, which means, it actually puts the unemployment rate lower than it could be.
So if you bring all the people back in from President Obama's first month in office, if we bring those people back into accounting for, into the accounting, we would be pushing ten percent unemployment, not 8.2 percent unemployment. So it's kind of a funny number. You know, conspiracy theorists, I honestly think that it's becoming a partisan department within the administration and it really shouldn't be. [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 4/19/12, via Media Matters]
Fox's Hannity Claimed Unemployment Numbers Are Being Fudged. In a discussion with Dick Morris on Hannity in May, Hannity questioned whether Obama could win reelection given his economic record, claiming “the vetting of Obama has begun, his economic record, his debt, his unemployment numbers which they are fudging, I don't think are honest, all of this is coming up.” [Fox News, Hannity, 3/12/12, via Nexis]
Fox's Dick Morris: “Unemployment Numbers Are Phony.” On Hannity, Morris discussed the problems facing the Obama campaign, including “phony” unemployment numbers:
MORRIS: I also think his unemployment numbers are phony. I have a column on that on my Web site. But you can't beat someone with no one and you can't beat someone if you going to go all the way to the convention. [Fox News, Hannity, 3/12/12, via Nexis]
Gretchen Carlson: “Some People Say” Unemployment Data “Are Fabricated.” On Fox News' Fox & Friends, co-host Gretchen Carlson discussed Obama's improved approval rating, saying “some of the numbers we've been reporting, unemployment has gone down, more jobs have been created, now you can argue about how those numbers, some people say are fabricated, but the bottom line is [Obama's] up at the 50 percent mark.” [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 2/15/12]
Sarah Palin: “The Media Is Relaying These Numbers That I Do Not Believe Are Accurate.” On Fox News' Happening Now, Fox News contributor Sarah Palin claimed she did not “believe” the job creation numbers were “accurate” and instead indicated that Obama and the media attempted “to make it look like things are getting better”:
PALIN: The media is relaying these numbers that I do not believe are accurate when it comes to job creation. I still think this is a jobless recovery that is affecting America right now. Yes it's 8.3% unemployment rate, which is an improvement from a year ago, but it's still a lot worse than when Barack Obama took over. That number reflects many, many millions of Americans who are underemployed, or just can't even muster really the gumption or the enthusiasm to get out there and look for a job.
So that 8.3% unemployment number is an indicator to President Obama and to his allies in the media to make it look like things are getting better, but look at the price of gas, look at the price of a barrel of oil, look at the manipulation of the domestic oil supply via our President's actions to lock things up, and you start getting a clearer and truer indicator of how the economy is going. [Fox News, Happening Now, 2/16/12]
Reality: The Bureau of Labor Statistics Is Non-Partisan And Trusted By Congress
BLS Is An Independent Statistical Agency Committed To Scientific Integrity. The BLS website includes the “Statement of Commitment to Scientific Integrity” that federal statistical agencies agree to uphold, ensuring they are non-partisan and objective. The site details precisely how BLS is independent from the rest of government:
Independence must include separation of the statistical agency from the parts of its department that are responsible for policy-making or law enforcement activities.
Independence must include control over personnel actions, especially the selection and appointment of qualified professional staff, including senior executive career staff.
Independence must include the statistical agency having authority for professional decisions over the scope, content, and frequency of data collected; analysis, or publishing of the information; authority to release statistical information without prior clearance; and adherence to predetermined schedules for public release of statistical information.
Independence must also include the statistical agency's ability to control information technology systems used in collection, storage and dissemination of statistical information, since such control is essential for ensuring adherence to laws and regulations requiring appropriate protection of data collected under a promise of confidentiality. [Bureau of Labor Statistics, accessed 10/3/12]
Wash. Post Described Grueling Accuracy Process For BLS Jobs Numbers. A March article from The Washington Post explained the pain-staking fact-checking process that each BLS employment report goes through before it is released:
The raw data had arrived at the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), like always, on Wednesday the week before the report's release: millions of characters representing survey information from 55,000 households; and then, a few days later, monthly payroll data from 486,000 businesses. Kosanovich's boss posted a two-page schedule on the office wall, detailing the tasks ahead for a team of more than 20 economists. They would be required to make a series of six deadlines. Their work would undergo 15 fact checks and then 15 clearance reviews. They would sit together in a windowless conference room and read aloud from their eventual creation, a three-page news release and 24 data tables, debating commas and verbs for hours on end.
They would do it all with absolute discretion during an eight-day security lockdown, signing confidentiality agreements each morning, encrypting their computers and locking data into avery time they walked 10 yards away to use a bathroom. “Is your workstation secure?” asked a sign in the hallway. They all remembered the last security miscue, in November 2008 -- the accidental transmission of some data to one wire service a full 25 seconds before the report's scheduled release, an incident that had necessitated a series of internal investigations and revisions.
“We always tape paper over the windows of the conference room or draw the shades,” Kosanovich said about her typical routine during a lockdown. She made a habit of refraining from answering phone calls or e-mails from unknown numbers and never discussing data outside her office. For eight days, nobody visited her team's floor at BLS without a security clearance. The custodial staff did not empty their trash until the report was released.
The lockdown was an exercise in tedium and precision, but those have been the hallmarks of BLS for 125 years. The agency remains strictly nonpartisan and intentionally bland. It measures the economy without ever opining on it. “The glass here is never half-empty or half-full,” Kosanovich said, repeating a popular BLS motto. “It's an eight-ounce glass with four ounces of liquid.” [The Washington Post, 3/9/12]
EPI: “The Idea That” BLS Data “Are Manipulated Is Just Completely Implausible.” Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, wrote about the "outrageous attack on BLS:
Apparently, Jack Welch, former chairman and CEO of General Electric, is accusing the Bureau of Labor Statistics of manipulating the jobs report to help President Obama. Others seem to be adding their voices to this slanderous lie. It is simply outrageous to make such a claim and echoes the worrying general distrust of facts that seems to have swept segments of our nation.
BLS is a highly professional agency with dozens of people involved in the tabulation and analysis of these data. The idea that the data are manipulated is just completely implausible. [Economic Policy Institute, 10/5/12]
Media Matters interns Alessandra DiMonda, Brendan Karet, and Brian Rabitz contributed to this research report.