This morning – after the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its monthly jobs report stating that the unemployment rate had fallen from 8.1 percent in August to 7.8 percent in September – everybody started shouting about the numbers. President Barack Obama used them as evidence of economic progress, challenger Mitt Romney swatted them aside and scoffed that this “is not what a real recovery looks like,” and Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric (and current Reuters Opinion contributor) tweeted that Obama’s “Chicago guys” had fudged the encouraging numbers to make up for the poor performance of their boss in the Oct. 3 debate. This prompted the proprietors at @PuckBuddys to tweet, “Truthers, Birthers and now Welchers.”
Ezra Klein, the mayor of wonkville, rushed to defend the integrity of the numbers in his Washington Post blog, pointing to a Mar. 9, 2012, Post story about the secret-agent measures taken by the BLS statisticians to prevent tampering with the data or the results. Computers: encrypted and locked. Office windows: papered over. Confidentiality agreements: signed each morning. Emails and phone calls from unknowns: unanswered during the eight days of lockdown preceding the job report release. Visitors: none permitted without security clearance. Trash cans: not emptied by custodians during the period.
Helping Klein repel the doubters were Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis – ”I’m insulted when I hear that, because we have a very professional civil service,” she said on CNBC – and Keith Hall, former Bureau of Labor Statistics chief under President George W. Bush, whose position was summarized in a Wall Street Journal blog item titled “Impossible to Manipulate Labor Survey Data – Former BLS Head.” Welch’s most prominent allies were Tea Party inspiration Rick Santelli, who implied on CNBC that the numbers were rigged, and Monica Crowley, who sarcastically tweeted: ”the rate miraculously drops to 7.8%. Ahem.”
But as Megan McArdle pointed out today at the Daily Beast, even if you believed that the Bureau of Labor Statistics was capable of such a number-inventing conspiracy, the subtle swing in the employment numbers would be too vague to build a conspiracy from. They neither vindicate Obama’s economic policies nor refute them. It would be like breaking into a bank and stealing just the pennies. On the other hand, just because Obama hasn’t played games with BLS numbers doesn’t mean it’s impossible for him or another president or politician to manipulate data to political advantage. Back in 2004, the New Yorker‘s James Surowiecki, no member of the tin-foil-hat crowd, accused President George W. Bush of futzing with hallowed government numbers. He wrote: