Jack Welch, the unemployment rate and the Bureau of Labor Statistics: 5 ways to understand the jobs report

FILE-In this Monday, Sept. 17, 2012, file photo, job applicants wait for the opening of a job fair held by National Career Fairs in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Economists forecast that the unemployment rate edged up last month to 8.2 percent from 8.1 percent, according to a survey by FactSet. Employers are expected to have added 111,000 jobs. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)

Jack Welch, the unemployment rate, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics: 5 ways to understand the jobs report

Storified by Digital First Media · Fri, Oct 05 2012 09:34:44

Unbelievable jobs numbers..these Chicago guys will do anything..can’t debate so change numbersJack Welch
Former GE CEO Jack Welch gave a high-profile boost to Republican grassroots grumblings about the improved September unemployment rate when he tweeted that the Obama administration had manipulated the numbers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, which produces the reports, batted down the complaint. Here are five things you need to know:

Jobs data is hard to manipulate

Actually, a former BLS leader called it “next to impossible” in this McClatchy story: “People shouldn’t think at all there is any bias in the numbers,” said Keith Hall, who until recently was commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “This data is collected and examined by each state … hundreds of people at BLS help collect this data and compile it. If you wanted to try to mess with these numbers, you are talking a very difficult thing.” (You can wade through exactly how it’s done.)

The Bureau of Labor Statistics was set up to ensure presidents can’t influence it

The Washington Post last year put together a long explainer on how the bureau works. In addition to a structure that renders it safe from influential hands, its work is apparently very dramatic, according to the Post story: “In a windowless room in the Labor Department, 40 economists and journalists prepared for the report’s official release. They studied the contents of folders labeled: ‘Confidential Data: For those with authorization, access and need-to-know.’ … The Labor Department had recently sought security advice from the organization that safeguards the country’s stockpile of national weapons, for fear of a last-minute leak.” (NPR also did a lengthy review of the agency.)

Still, there are problems with the unemployment rate statistic

Mainly, it’s that the unemployment rate most people refer to does not measure people who have stopped looking for work out of frustration. The New York Time’s Economix blog explained it with a nifty chart after the May jobs report came out.

The jobs report may not affect the campaign as much as you think

In a post on the Monkey Cage blog, George Washington University political science professor John Sides argues that perception and news coverage, and how those two factors work together, matter more than the actual report, and a couple hundreths of a point here or there: “It’s not an election where negative news coverage of the economy may hurt the incumbent even as the objective economy improves,” he wrote in mid-September.

The campaigns are likely to use the numbers to suit themselves anyway

The New York Times has a nifty graphic, showing the varying ways Republicans and Democrats are likely to interpret the latest report. Dems: 31 consecutive months of job growth. Republicans: Rate was above 8 percent for 43 months. So basically, the report as its written can be used to argue either party’s position.