“If Congress does not act to end sequestration, we’re looking at the loss of as many as 1.4 million jobs over the next two years.”
— Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), statement in news release, Aug. 11, 2015
Sanders, an independent who’s running for the Democratic presidential nomination, appears to be creeping up on Hillary Rodham Clinton in some of the polls. But he and his staff recently engaged in some fuzzy math when they touted a letter received from the Congressional Budget Office, saying that it “projected enormous job losses for American workers” if spending caps in the 2011 Budget Control Act are not waived.
Regular readers may recall that in 2013 then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) earned Four Pinocchios for claiming that the sequester had already cut 1.6 million jobs. There seems to be something about CBO estimates that makes lawmakers forget basic math.
To Sanders’ credit, the news release included a link to the CBO letter. But it does not say what Sanders thinks it says. Let’s take a look.
First of all, note that the Sanders’ statement says that “as many as” 1.4 million jobs would be lost. That’s a signal that a politician is using the high-end of a range.
In this case, when asked how many more people would be employed if the sequester were canceled, CBO said the impact in calendar year 2016 would be that full-time employment would be higher by between 200,000 and 800,000 people. (Note: Though the CBO was making a prediction for canceling the sequester, under its models it is acceptable to reverse the numbers for the opposite action, as Sanders did in his statement.)
The most appropriate number to pick would be the midpoint – 500,000. But Sanders chose to focus on the high end of the range, and describe each employed person as a “job.”
So how does he get to 1.4 million? That’s because CBO said the impact of canceling the sequester in calendar year 2017 would be that between 100,000 and 600,000 additional people employed. The mid-point is 300,000, but Sanders focused on 600,000. (Note: CBO set the midpoint as 300,000.)
So 800,000 plus 600,000 equals 1.4 million. Sounds like simple math, right? But it’s wrong.
Under CBO’s methodology, you can’t simply add the two figures. Each figure is distinct, relating to that time period. Many of the employed workers in 2016 would likely continue to be employed in 2017. So we are not talking about that many additional jobs. In fact, the CBO estimate suggests the impact of the sequester is waning.
Mike Casca, a spokesman for Sanders, defended the calculation by saying it referred to “job-years,” a term sometimes used to describe work on construction projects. (A construction project, for instance, might last two years and hire 1,000 workers, for a total of 2,000 job-years.)
But CBO was looking at something different: how many additional workers would have jobs if the budget caps were lifted.
The answer is between 100,000 and 600,000 by 2017, or a midpoint of 300,000. And while Sanders spoke of “enormous job losses,” that number is just ¼ of 1 percent of the total number of jobs under the CBO baseline for nationwide employment. (In fact, even with the sequester in place, the CBO projects the number of workers would climb more than 1.4 million between 2016 and 2017.)
Here’s another bit of context on those 300,000 additional workers: The U.S. economy gained nearly 450,000 employees just in the months of June and July.
The Pinocchio Test
Given this number was put in a press statement, we are going to grade it toughly. Not only did Sanders use a wildly inflated figure, but his math makes little sense. In context, and properly counted, it’s a real stretch to speak of “enormous” job losses.
There is little excuse for the senator and his staff not understanding the meaning of a letter they received from the CBO. Yes, Sanders is using a CBO document, which usually mitigates the number of Pinocchios. But he needs to learn how to read it.
(Update: The Economy Policy Institute dismissed this fact check as “bizarrely tendentious,” saying it is acceptable to use “job years” as a euphemism for jobs. And former Obama administration economic aide Jared Bernstein, writing in The Washington Post, also thinks we went too far, saying “I would have given him one Pinocchio at most.”)
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