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  • Jack Welch: I Was Right About That Strange Jobs Report

    Imagine a country where challenging the ruling authorities—questioning, say, a piece of data released by central headquarters—would result in mobs of administration sympathizers claiming you should feel "embarrassed" and labeling you a fool, or worse.

    Editorial board member Steve Moore on the good and bad of the jobs report and whether it will help President Obama's campaign.

    Soviet Russia perhaps? Communist China? Nope, that would be the United States right now, when a person (like me, for instance) suggests that a certain government datum (like the September unemployment rate of 7.8%) doesn't make sense.

    Unfortunately for those who would like me to pipe down, the 7.8% unemployment figure released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) last week is downright implausible. And that's why I made a stink about it.

    Before I explain why the number is questionable, though, a few words about where I'm coming from. Contrary to some of the sound-and-fury last week, I do not work for the Mitt Romney campaign. I am definitely not a surrogate. My wife, Suzy, is not associated with the campaign, either. She worked at Bain Consulting (not Bain Capital) right after business school, in 1988 and 1989, and had no contact with Mr. Romney.

    The Obama campaign and its supporters, including bigwigs like David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs, along with several cable TV anchors, would like you to believe that BLS data are handled like the gold in Fort Knox, with gun-carrying guards watching their every move, and highly trained, white-gloved super-agents counting and recounting hourly.

    Let's get real. The unemployment data reported each month are gathered over a one-week period by census workers, by phone in 70% of the cases, and the rest through home visits. In sum, they try to contact 60,000 households, asking a list of questions and recording the responses.
    Some questions allow for unambiguous answers, but others less so. For instance, the range for part-time work falls between one hour and 34 hours a week. So, if an out-of-work accountant tells a census worker, "I got one baby-sitting job this week just to cover my kid's bus fare, but I haven't been able to find anything else," that could be recorded as being employed part-time.

    The possibility of subjectivity creeping into the process is so pervasive that the BLS's own "Handbook of Methods" has a full page explaining the limitations of its data, including how non-sampling errors get made, from "misinterpretation of the questions" to "errors made in the estimations of missing data."

    Bottom line: To suggest that the input to the BLS data-collection system is precise and bias-free is—well, let's just say, overstated.

    Even if the BLS had a perfect process, the context surrounding the 7.8% figure still bears serious skepticism. Consider the following:

    In August, the labor-force participation rate in the U.S. dropped to 63.5%, the lowest since September 1981. By definition, fewer people in the workforce leads to better unemployment numbers. That's why the unemployment rate dropped to 8.1% in August from 8.3% in July.

    Meanwhile, we're told in the BLS report that in the months of August and September, federal, state and local governments added 602,000 workers to their payrolls, the largest two-month increase in more than 20 years. And the BLS tells us that, overall, 873,000 workers were added in September, the largest one-month increase since 1983, during the booming Reagan recovery.

    These three statistics—the labor-force participation rate, the growth in government workers, and overall job growth, all multidecade records achieved over the past two months—have to raise some eyebrows. There were no economists, liberal or conservative, predicting that unemployment in September would drop below 8%.

    I know I'm not the only person hearing these numbers and saying, "Really? If all that's true, why are so many people I know still having such a hard time finding work? Why do I keep hearing about local, state and federal cutbacks?"
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