How The Unemployed Are Counted: Scoundrel Edition | #MSMBias on Blog#42

Mainstream media reporting is very frustrating this primary season, with all of media having lost any semblance of neutrality. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones has dropped any pretense, when it comes to providing what has always seemed like a sober and balanced view. While I single Drum out in this post, he is hardly alone in this. From the New York Times to even The American Prospect, there is a new syndrome that is emerging: each one of those publications has dedicated staff who present a different hard line, instead of presenting a consistent tack on the news. This is as true of Mother Jones as it is of Vox, where Ezra Klein presents a milder tack to Matthew Yglesias’ and Dara Lind’s anti-Sanders work. Whether this approach to journalism is intended to give the appearance of balance or is an effort to confuse is something I leave to you to decide.

Today, Drum rails against figures that are being bandied about by members of the press and political candidates alike, and there is much to rail about. But, setting the clickbait headline aside, for a moment, Drum should know better than to lump all the people he mentions together in a pox-on-both-houses blog post that, in the end, is as shallow as what he complains about.

“This is getting ridiculous. On Tuesday Donald Trump repeated his fatuous nonsense about the real unemployment rate being 42 percent. Then Neil Irwin of the New York Times inexplicably decided to opine that “he’s not entirely wrong” because there are lots of different unemployment rates. Et tu, Neil? Bill O’Reilly picked up on this theme today, with guest Lou Dobbs casually declaring that unemployment is “actually” 10 percent. Finally, in the ultimate indignity, Bernie Sanders decided to take this idiocy bipartisan: “Who denies that real unemployment today, including those who have given up looking for work and are working part-time is close to 10 percent?””

U6 and all of the other measures by which we count the unemployed have always been considered (still are) approximate measures and, recently, there was a serious discussion about the deficiencies in the way we count the unemployed. I collated a series of posts from Jared Bernstein, whom I’ve always deferred to far more readily than most economists:

In this post, we briefly explain some of the evidence that there’s far more labor market slack than is apparent from the unemployment rate alone.

The unemployment rate doesn’t capture workers who, because of a difficult job market, have stopped looking for work.  The labor force participation rate – the share of the population that is either working or actively looking for work – dropped off sharply during the recession, from about 66 percent to about 63 percent.  While some of those folks left for retirement, others–maybe a third to a half by some measures–can be enticed back into a more welcoming job market.

A number of prime-age workers (those between age 25 and age 54), for example, have dropped out of the picture. The figure below shows the employment-to-population ratio for workers in this age group.  Notice the five-percentage-point plunge it took during the recession; while it has nudged back up to just over 77 percent, it is still three percentage points beneath its pre-recession level.

The bottom line is that, were anyone put on the spot for an exact figure on unemployment and underemployment, they couldn’t give you one because there isn’t one. What’s more, traditionally, when reporting on monthly jobs numbers, the press uses the U3 figure that was instituted during Bill Clinton’s presidency. 5% sounds a heck of a lot more reassuring than 10%, but neither U3 or U6 are true images of what is happening in reality.

The reality is that we don’t know, officially, what the reality is, and since the House of Representatives was taken over by the GOP in 2014, we know even less than we did before. That is what was behind a spate of blog posts on how personnel changes at the Congressional Budget Office would affect data, right around the time of the 2014 election. That is what we should all be railing against. What Trump and O’Reilly have to say can be assumed to be made up *ish. What Sanders and many others who make a conscious effort to quote U6 is closer to reality, but that reality is a quantity that no one really knows.

Unemployment figures should not be politicized, but they are. Hard news reporting and opinion-writing should be distinct entities within journalism. They stopped being that two years ago and we are now at the height of corporate media interference in the election process, with invested parties exerting corrupt and undue influence over the major news purveyors. I wrote about that here, here, and here, and have been complaining about it bitterly in the op-ed page comment section in the New York Times for the last two years, incurring the wrath of many readers.

For all the talk about angry voters, few are the pundits who have bothered to mention the real reason why. At the very top of the list of reasons why people are angry is knowing how badly they and all the people they know are doing and not being able to reconcile what they know, the reality they live daily, and a lot of the rosy fiction that passes for news and analysis. The media has been playing a huge role in making public uneasiness far worse than it would be, had it made any effort to play the role it should in our society. For better or worse, both Trump and Sanders tap into that, and, increasingly, there is the sense, and some evidence, that pro-Clinton media and her campaign are managing that.

I never thought I’d see the day when I have to resort to using a movie clip to warn people, but here I go:


Blog#42 is a reader-supported site and my full-time job. I cannot do more without your financial support. Please click here to help me take Blog#42 to the next level!