7.8% and Born Again Skeptics
When unemployment dipped slightly from 8.1% to 7.8% some conservatives, most notably former GE CEO Jack Welch, alleged a political conspiracy on the part of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Interestingly, when the numbers were unfavorable to Obama, the BLS data was used to criticize the president. Now that the information is favorable to Obama, certain critics are born again skeptics when it comes to the BLS. There are, of course, legitimate grounds on which to criticize the methodology used to determine unemployment. However, it is certainly a matter of intellectual inconsistency to accept the BLS as a trustworthy source when its data matches one’s ideological view and then reject it simply because the data no longer matches one’s ideological view. After all, if the BLS data was reliable enough then, it should also be reliable enough now.
It has been contended that the BLS is “cooking the books” because of the change from 8.1% to 7.8%. However, there are three obvious counters. The first is that the lower number is consistent with the downward trend in unemployment. That is, the decrease is what one would plausibly predict from the trend. Second, the BLS is non-partisan and takes great care to present objective data. Third, the people who are attacking the BLS actually admit that they do not have evidence to show that the BLS manipulated the data. However, they do tend to make the rather odd claim that despite the lack of any evidence, they somehow “sense” that something is off. A good example of this is “Is it possible that the BLS data is being manipulated for political reasons? I certainly don’t have enough evidence to confirm my suspicions. What I can say is if it smells like a dead fish, there is always a possibility that it might actually be a dead fish. We leave it for you to decide.”
It is well worth analyzing this approach. The critics are, oddly enough, willing to admit that they have no actual evidence. From a rational standpoint, that should end the matter. However, they then claim that they somehow “sense” something is wrong with the data. On the one hand, it could be argued that they have an intuition that is accurate. Of course, such an intuition would be such that evidence could be found to confirm it. On the other hand, they could be “sensing” that something is wrong out of mere wishful thinking (that is, they do not want it to be true, so it seems untrue). They typically finish by the classic rhetorical device of leaving it to the audience to decide, thus creating the appearance that there are actually grounds for doubt that require the audience to pick between equal alternatives. However, since the critics state that they have no evidence, there are not actually equal alternatives. The evidence is overwhelming that the BLS is as trustworthy as it was previously.
Naturally, it is possible that the BLS is wrong. After all, the methodology is inductive and has some acknowledged defects. However, the main concern here is not the method, but with the sudden and unprincipled doubt on the part of the critics of Obama. After all, if the BLS data is inaccurate, then the bad numbers would presumably be inaccurate as well. However, the critics in question were only born again as skeptics when the number was favorable.
Obviously, if Welch or someone else can present actual evidence, then that evidence should be given proper consideration. However, the rejection of the 7.8% figure seems to be a matter of political ideology and not a principled skepticism.