A Philosopher's Blog

7.8% and Born Again Skeptics

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on October 9, 2012
Bureau of Labor Statistics

Bureau of Labor Statistics (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

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16 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on October 9, 2012 at 4:24 pm

    On the Senate floor Harry Reid claims Mitt Romney paid no income tax for 10 years and Mike is silent. Jack Welch, a private citizen, tweets that some BLS numbers are fishy and Mike is all over it.

    WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid took his jihad concerning Mitt Romney’s personal finances to the chamber floor Thursday, repeating his unsubstantiated claim that the wealthy Republican paid no federal income taxes for 10 years.

    http://articles.latimes.com/2012/aug/02/news/la-pn-harry-reid-takes-romneybashing-campaign-to-senate-floor-20120802

    • magus71 said, on October 9, 2012 at 5:31 pm

      Surprising? Mike will chalk this up to “there’s a finite number of things I can write about.”

      • biomass2 said, on October 9, 2012 at 5:56 pm

        The two cases don’t appear to be the same:

        You have to admit that when Reid made his statement there was precious little info out there about Romney’s tax. At least now he’s deigned to provide, what is it, two years?

        On the other hand, I think Dr. L’s point about the prevailing attitude among Republicans toward the BLS pre- the 7.8% report was one of gleeful acceptance of the accuracy of their figgers. When the tables turned and BLS reported a small improvement in the figgers, Republicans like Welch and (omigod, Donald Trump) immediately demonized the Bureau and its findings.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 9, 2012 at 6:34 pm

      I did hear about that, but as far as I could tell no one else took that seriously. I don’t watch MSNBC so I do not know if it got a lot of play there, but as far as I could tell his remark was made and fell flat on its own. In contrast, the conspiracy about the 7.8% is getting actual attention.

      But, two points.

      1. My failure to address Reid’s unsupported claim does not prove that my current remarks are in error.
      2. As a general rule, unsupported claims should not be accepted as true unless they have adequate credibility of their own. Reid’s charge was not impossible, but clearly serious enough to expect him to provide evidence rather than mere speculation.

      • T. J. Babson said, on October 9, 2012 at 6:57 pm

        Don’t you distinguish between people who represent themselves, like Jack Welch, and the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid who represents the Democratic party? Shouldn’t a person in Reid’s shoes be a little more careful than a flamboyant ex-CEO?

        • biomass2 said, on October 9, 2012 at 7:28 pm

          Oh, I think Welch, like Trump, defends an easily identified political agenda. They both represent that agenda poorly. Whether they do it as elected officials or as wealthy individuals makes little difference. They just haven’t been elected to a government office. And chances are their shoes cost much more than Reids.

  2. abjectbooks said, on October 11, 2012 at 10:47 pm

    It always seems that your regular readers here don’t like what you write, or ever agree with you. They also seem to have some expectation that you are going to be totally unbiased in both your choice of topics, and your treatment of them. Micheal, regular readers: why is this? Do you all just enjoy a satisfying disagreement?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 12, 2012 at 5:48 am

      They do have a reasonable expectation that I will endeavor to be unbiased (I claim to be a philosopher and not an ideologist). That said, I do pick topics that interest me and I do have clear moral and political commitments. I would say that I write from a considered perspective and am open to changing my views in the face of evidence and reason. However, this sees to be regarded as bias.

      I actually value having a number of readers who disagree with me. There is always the risk of a blog becoming an “echo chamber” in which the faithful preach to each other and sing in a chorus of agreement, pausing only to silence any dissenting voice. There is no danger of that here. :)

    • magus71 said, on October 12, 2012 at 8:58 am

      Not all. Biomass is decidedly on Mike’s side on most issues.

      Also, Mike picks subjects that he knows will stir the pot. But yes, I absolutely like a good disagreement–especially when I really do disagree. It’s my nature. People sometimes mistake this for anger. I feel no anger at all. I feel the same energy I feel as when I’m playing a sport I enjoy. Ever see a professional football coach screaming on the sideline? Happens almost every week. It’s hardly ever real anger, though. It’s energy. Those coaches love what they do.

      I really do disagree with Mike’s analysis, because they are mostly subjects cherry-picked in his favor. that being said, here’s where Nietzsche and I meet:

      “I am by nature warlike. To attack is among my instincts. To be able to be an enemy, to be an enemy–that presuposes a strong nature, it is in any event a condition of every strong nature. It needs resistances…The strength of one who attacks has in the opposition he needs a kind of gauge; every growth reveals itself in the seeking out of a powerful opponent.”

      So, I come to this site because I consider Mike a worthy adversary, to test myself and my own beliefs and capabilities. Other than that, I consider Mike a good friend, and always will.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 12, 2012 at 9:41 am

        Magus71 (Doug) and I have been friends for almost thirty years. We’re both veteran gamers and have met hundreds of times on the virtual battlefield. I know he expects a good fight from me, so I expect one from him. But, as with games and sports, there are no hard feelings. If only because I always win. :)

      • biomass2 said, on October 12, 2012 at 10:06 am

        I’ve commented before on my so-called “side”. I like to consider myself independent with enough common sense (what for me seems to be common sense) to lean to the liberal side on social issues and the conservative side on fiscal issues. At least at the personal level, that’s the way my wife and our children live our lives. When the same approach is taken at the national level, sometimes major or minor adjustments have to be made to make sense of it all to make it work.
        Anyway, Magus knows that, if he or TJ come up with a reasonable argument for their ‘side[s]” , I’m open to other views. Why, I remember once actually admitting that I appreciated magus’ ability and willingness to bring his military experience to our discussions.

        Unfortunately, he and TJ, and a few of others on here have a tendency to believe that their ‘experiences’ are somehow more broadly defining than they actually are. You know, the “I stood behind a woman in the supermarket who was using food stamps. She was wearing a fur coat. Ergo, food stamps are bad and the poor are all cheating suckers.” Or: “I had an extremely hard life. But I made something of myself. These other people out there asking for handouts are leeches on the backside of society.” I do not doubt in any way the initial experiences as stated are truthful. But the conclusions, frankly, are mush.

        Unfortunately, too many arguments—theirs and mine, I believe— are damaged or destroyed by rash generalizations, name-calling, leaping to conclusions, the inability to recognize bias in print and video sources, and the rest. I believe Mike has written a few books that deal with such subjects. I should probably buy and read them so I could use the proper terminology. But, honestly, if we eliminated all of the fallacies from the discussions on the internet and on tv and radio, what would we be left with?

    • WTP said, on October 14, 2012 at 11:51 am

      After giving this question considerable thought, in light of many of the more recent commentary from the Mike-o-mass-letariat, I believe it boils down to simply this. Visiting this site combines two of my greatest passions, thinking and train wrecks. Granted, such can be found elsewhere but but the portions served here are much more manageable. Though, I suppose I could be wrong. Perhaps this requires more thought…

      • biomass2 said, on October 14, 2012 at 1:58 pm

        WTP:
        You’re wrong.
        Or let’s say that “[a]fter giving this question considerable thought” I believe you’re prone to too much “boiling.” Prone to many of those problems I point to in my 10/12 10:06am above. In fact your 11:51am is an example of what happens when some of those problems mentioned in my post ‘boil’ over. You provide a reply that is totally devoid of value. Now of course, I feel I must reply in kind.

        I suppose I could be wrong. . . But, WTP, there may well be sites that you’ve overlooked in your desperate search for the best site—sites that better serve your unique sense of “more manageable” portions of “thinking and train wrecks.” I’m not inside your head rummaging around thank God. I’ll just say that I believe you’ve reached an unjustified conclusion and that perhaps, you should go on another search and return in three or four years with more useful findings. In your quest you may bump into kernunos on his quest for the Holy Hair and the Magic Tax Form. :)

      • biomass2 said, on October 19, 2012 at 12:42 pm

        It does require more thought on your part. If you can squeeze into your busy schedule, think.

  3. WTP said, on October 18, 2012 at 10:11 am


    As Dow Jones reported: “A Labor Department economist said one large state didn’t report additional quarterly figures as expected, accounting for a substantial part of the decrease.”

    The wording of that statement, along with the accompanying headlines, left the impression that one major state didn’t turn in its figures.

    Here’s what actually happened. The state did report weekly jobless claims but did not process and report its quarterly claims number (when many people have to reapply for benefits for technical reasons as opposed to being newly laid off). As a result, there wasn’t the expected spike in claims that normally happens at the start of the quarter.

    http://www.cnbc.com/id/49372827/

  4. WTP said, on October 19, 2012 at 12:26 pm

    Marty Morgenstern, the secretary of the California agency that substantially under-reported unemployment claims last week, contributed to President Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential election campaign, The Daily Caller has learned.

    http://dailycaller.com/2012/10/18/calif-official-whose-agency-under-reported-unemployment-stats-was-obama-campaign-donor/


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