October 5, 2012
It didn't take long after today's unemployment numbers came out from the Bureau of Labor Statistics before conspiracy theorists let loose. Data for September (and revised numbers for August) showing that the unemployment rate had dipped below 8 percent for the first time in forever raised the eyebrows of more than a few observers, including some fairly prominent figures.
Former GE CEO Jack Welch really got the ball rolling with a tweet shortly after the numbers came out saying, "Unbelievable jobs numbers..these Chicago guys will do anything..can't debate so change numbers". From there it was off to the races, with a whole host of folks chiming in that they, too, thought the fix was in.
Of course, we're in the heat of a presidential election, in a week in which the incumbent president got his clock cleaned in a debate, so the political paranoia is understandable.
The problem is that this cuts deeper than political maneuvering. Those who suggest that BLS numbers could be easily manipulated are in fact questioning the very idea of an independent, professional civil service. And today they did so with precious little in the way of supporting evidence.
As the Los Angeles Times reported -- in the kind of story that it seems incredible that a news organization actually would have to run -- it is beyond highly unlikely that the Obama administration could coerce BLS employees to get a favorable unemployment number. (For one thing, if they could, why didn't they do it much sooner?) Keith Hall, the former head of BLS, told the paper that dozens and dozens of people are involved in the process of collecting and assessing the data that goes into the unemployment figure. "It would be impossible to manipulate the numbers and not be found out," he said. Hall was appointed by George W. Bush and served a four-year term that extended into the Obama administration.
BLS employees are professionals who go to work every day (many of them have toiled at the agency through several presidential administrations) with one mission in mind: to provide credible data about the state of the workforce. It's one thing to suggest that they and other federal employees are overpaid or inefficient. It's entirely different -- and more scary -- to suggest they would, en masse, participate in a massive scheme to manipulate federal data to support a president's reelection campaign.
"I'm insulted when I hear that, because we have a very professional civil service organization where you have top, top economists," Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said on CNBC.
By the way, remember the last guy who attacked the integrity of BLS and its employees in a big way? Hint: It's not someone you'd want to emulate.
October 5, 2012