Unemployment: Propaganda and Truth

We have gone beyond partisanship; the party in power in our country has engaged in a systematic campaign to manipulate the electorate by destroying the credibility of governing institutions.

This campaign has been disturbingly successful.

Citizens interested in preserving democracy, legitimate political debate and rule of law must combat propaganda – by identifying it, revealing the selfish and destructive motives behind it, and responding with truth.

Last week I wrote about the assault on the free press. The civil service – now presented to supporters of the current occupant of the White House as part of a “Deep State” — has been another object of attack. One target has been the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the otherwise apolitical process of calculating the unemployment rate.

With the unemployment rate declining steadily during the Obama presidency and in the aftermath of the 2008-9 financial crisis, Republicans decided that reality was stubbornly inconvenient. The unemployment rate was not moving in the desired direction (after all, political ends come before the welfare of the country). The numbers themselves, therefore, would have to be declared fictitious, and those involved in compiling the data would have to be villainized.

With a willing hyperpartisan following committed to condemning the Obama administration no matter the facts, Republican operatives embarked on a coordinated assault on the unemployment data and the civil servants involved in processing the data.

The right-wing Heritage Foundation was at the center of the process. In 2006, Heritage published a “Jobs and Labor” report “Hard at Work,” explaining why the decline in the unemployment rate under George Bush was real, despite a fall in the labor force participation rate. The author of that report argued that “Changing demographics explain part of the lower participation rates. Beyond that, much of the decline in labor force participa­tion (LFP) rates-the propor­tion of the population either in or actively looking for work- can be attributed to the rising numbers of younger Americans opting to invest in their future by continuing their education rather than entering the work­force.”

Five years later, when no longer suited to the political moment, Heritage turned the argument on its head, embarking on a steady stream of efforts to delegitimate the measured unemployment rate. In September 2012, Heritage reported that “The workers now outside the labor force are primarily either studying in school or collecting disability benefits. Approximately 2.1 million more Americans report being outside the labor force and enrolled in school. The weak economy has both made it more difficult for students to find part-time jobs and reduced the opportunity cost of going to school.”

While leaving the labor force to pursue further education represented a choice “to invest in their future” under George W. Bush, under Obama people left the labor force for education because of declining opportunity costs of doing so.

In fall 2012; the right-wing Washington Times brought the popular media into the propaganda effort, publishing an article claiming of the pre-election reduction in the unemployment rate: “At best the new unemployment number is a fluke; at worst it is the product of partisan hacks.”

The New York Post broadened the claim with a fall 2013 article simply asserting “Census ‘faked’ 2012 election jobs report.” The article pointed to a single Census Bureau data canvasser who claimed to have made up his jobs data. Never mind that (a) the person in question did not work for the Census Bureau during the period claimed; and (b) economists familiar with the calculations explained that even if one person’s data WAS entirely made up, there would be zero impact on the data accumulated by thousands of canvassers. As with the news, the concept of “fake” unemployment numbers had entered the discourse.

MarketwatchMic and Forbes (“Did the BLS Give Obama a Major Election 2012 Gift?”) amplified the campaign, picking up on the Post’s invitation to elaborate a case for partisan fixing of the data.

Declaring the officially calculated unemployment rate “fake” or manipulated – a claim that has been proven false — is itself a manipulation, an act of propaganda.

The political advantages of propaganda are that it provides a shortcut to desired political conclusions and that it is immune to evidence. But anyone truly committed to democratic debate shuns such shortcuts and embraces evidence.

The recent decline in the measured rate of unemployment under the current administration is real. But there is important context to this decline, and discussion of that context constitutes legitimate political debate rather than the shameful, destructive propaganda that has become the stock-in-trade of the present administration.

To begin with, the recent fall in the unemployment rate clearly is a continuation of a trend well established during the Obama administration. The unemployment rate is now at 3.9%; during the Obama years, the rate declined from a peak of 10.0% in December 2009 — during the financial crisis the Obama administration inherited — to 4.7% at the end of his second term:

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True, there have been 17 straight months of job gains. But this follows 75 consecutive months of job gains under Obama.

Furthermore, the rate of job gains has not increased. During the stretch of 75 months of job gains of the Obama recovery, the U.S. economy gained 199,000 jobs per month; during the second Obama administration, the average monthly gain was 217,000.

Since January 2017, the rate has been 189,000 per month.

Finally, the decline in the unemployment rate does not mean that working people are better off. In fact, during the past year, while wages rose by 2.7%, inflation was 2.9%. The average worker, in other words, is losing ground in real terms.

In short, while propaganda renders recent job market performance miraculous and unprecedented, facts suggest otherwise. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has not been lying; the current administration cannot tell the truth.

 

Time to Defend Democratic Institutions

Partisan division over the news media is nothing new; but something new – and more sinister – is certainly afoot.

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Assessments of the fairness of news coverage have long varied by party identification, with each party perceiving news coverage of the presidency as less fair when their party occupies the White House. Partisan identification also shapes perceptions of media bias – views of whether the media are “liberal” or “conservative.”

Seething crowds ranting against the press at rallies held by the current occupant of the White House provide anecdotal evidence of a more sharply divisive tone. But there is something more systematic going on.

So what has changed?

A 2013 Pew Research Survey revealed a deep partisan divide, with 65% of Republicans viewing the media as liberal (17% conservative; 12% as neutral) and Democrats more evenly divided between 36% perceiving the media as liberal, 37% as conservative and 20% as neutral. But there was a critical area of common ground: 69% of Republicans and 67% of Democrats indicated in the survey that the press play a vital watchdog role, “keeping leaders from doing things that shouldn’t be done.”

In just four years, that shared assessment vanished. Pew conducted a similar survey in 2017, and a review of the findings proves unsettling. While 89% of respondents identifying with the Democratic Party believe the media “keeps political leaders from doing things that shouldn’t be done,” only 42% of Republicans believe this. What’s especially astonishing is that the figure for Republicans tracks that of Democrats upward during the financial crisis and the latter years of the Obama era. In fact, at the close of the Obama era, Republicans had a slightly higher preference for the media’s watchdog role, at 77%, versus 74% for Democrats.

The 47 percentage point gap in views of the role of the press as a check on government’s exercise of power between Republicans and Democrats is by far the highest ever recorded in the Pew Survey, which has been asking this question since 1985. The highest gap prior to this was 28 points, recorded during the George W. Bush administration in 2005.

An academic article on public attitudes toward the press by John Immerwahr and John Doble published in Public Opinion Quarterly in 1982 – still close on the heels of the Watergate scandal – showed that citizens wanted evenhanded coverage of major news events and equal time to competing political candidates. Survey respondents also strongly supported the rights of reporters to criticize the president and of newspapers to print stories the president considers biased and inaccurate.

But partisanship has now produced an environment in which respect for those press freedoms is not shared across the political spectrum.

I’ve written previously about the deep perceptual divide in American society (and in the UK, as evidenced by the Brexit vote and the debate that has ensued), and the manner in which the arrival of new evidence – of, say, Russian contacts previously denied by people associated with this administration – only deepens the divide rather than drawing citizens toward common conclusions. By itself, the perceptual rift is not new.

What IS new is that the current administration and its backers have systematically undermined support for institutions that represent checks on its authority – and which also represent the bedrock of democracy.

In the realm of media perceptions, Republican political operatives have prepared the ground for years; the 2013 Pew Survey reveals evidence of this in a strong perception of “liberal” bias by Republicans. But, as I will write about next week, the intensified assault on institutions began with a systematic critique of the unemployment rate and the Bureau of Labor Statistics during the Obama Administration. Unable to accept evidence of a steadily declining unemployment rate following the financial crisis, right-wing political groups and think-tanks embarked on a systematic campaign to impugn the data and the institution producing them. The results were inconvenient, so the strategy was to label them a fiction.

That assault continued with the press, and has since encompassed the civil service (“the deep state”) and even citizens expressing dissent in the form of protest (“paid actors”).

We’ve moved well beyond a simple partisan divide. From a state of affairs in which adherents of each political party believe institutions are biased in favor of the other side, but embrace the value of the institutions and want them to be fair, we’ve arrived at a moment in which supporters of the party in power reject the institutions themselves. This gives license to the party in power to systematically undermine those institutions.

In his book, On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder underscores a lesson also advanced by leading scholars of fascism, such as Robert Paxton: institutions do not defend themselves. As Snyder points out, the error made by supporters of democratic institutions is “to assume that rulers who came to power through institutions cannot change or destroy those very institutions – even when that is exactly what they have announced that they will do.”

It is time to defend our institutions. Stand up for the free press. For the civil service. And yes, for the Bureau of Labor Statistics.