Today, we present a guest post written by Jeffrey Frankel, Harpel Professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and formerly a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.
When interviewed about the unemployment numbers, which have fallen steadily since 2010, Donald Trump Jr., replied “These are artificial numbers. These are numbers that are massaged to make the existing economy look good, to make this administration look good when, in fact, it’s a total disaster.” PolitiFact asked a variety of experts about the quote. Their bottom line: the quote from the younger Trump was a “Pants on Fire” lie. The truth is that presidents don’t and can’t manipulate the jobs numbers. No White House has even tried — at least not since Richard Nixon made a heavy-handed attempt in 1971 to interfere with BLS staffing. After that, extra firewalls were put in place.
Here is my own full response to PolitiFact’s question regarding the Trump claim:
The statement is 100% false. The employment numbers come from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (part of the Labor Department). In this administration, like every administration, those who produce the employment statistics are long-time nonpolitical professionals. The Secretary of Labor does not even know what the numbers are going to be when they are announced every month (the morning of the first Friday of the month).
Allegations that the official government numbers understate unemployment are sometimes based on a claim that some higher measure (which, for example, includes discouraged workers who have given up looking for a job, or part-time workers), should be used in place of the ones that get the most attention in the press. But these other measures are also made publicly available by the BLS and the press is free to write about them as much as they want.
The important thing, of course, is to be consistent across time in which measure you use. It wouldn’t be right to switch from looking at the conventional rate to a measure that includes discouraged workers just because you don’t like the incumbent president and want to make things look bad for him.