Bad ideas never die. They live forever in the comments section.
And sometimes, it turns out, in presidential campaigns, too. Just look at what Donald Trump has said about unemployment. "They have this phony number," he told rally-goers in January, of "5.2 percent" when "the real number's like 22, 23 percent."
No, no it's not. The unemployment rate isn't a conspiracy. It's calculated the same way it has been for decades now. Everyone who's looking for work but can't find it, no matter how long they've been looking, is counted as unemployed. That said, it is true that today's 4.9 percent unemployment rate isn't quite as good as, say, 1997's 4.9 percent unemployment rate. That's because there are a few million people who should be in the prime of their working years, 25- to 54-year-olds who, for the most part, are too old to be in school but too young to be retired, who are not in fact working. Some of them might have given up hope of finding anything for now, and others might only be able to find jobs they don't think they can afford since those positions wouldn't cover the costs of child care. What we can say for sure, though, is that they aren't actively searching for work, so they aren't officially "unemployed." Not that finding a job is always enough. It's finding a good job that matters. And by that measure, there are another couple million people who can only get a part-time gig and not the full-time job they want. Which is to say that while the recovery is real, it still isn't real enough for a lot of people.
Two things happen, though, if you point this out. First, Trump supporters accuse you of being biased against him. And second, they ask if you've ever heard of Shadow Stats. That's a conspiracy website that purports to calculate inflation and unemployment numbers the way the government used to, before, it's implied, Uncle Sam started cooking the books. Except that, by its own admission, Shadow Stats isn't actually doing that. All it's doing is taking the official stats and adding a random number to them to make things look worse. That's it. That's the whole "method." If you took it seriously, you'd have to believe that the U.S. economy has been in a continuous recession since 2005 — which, of course, is belied by the fact we've been adding jobs most of that time outside of 2008 and 2009. Shrinking economies, after all, don't tend to create jobs.
Now, you could chalk this up to either ignorance or incompetence or both if it weren't for something that investor Cullen Roche noticed. Shadow Stats has said that inflation has been around 5 percent for the past 10 years now, it has predicted that inflation would explode to Weimar-style levels for the past 10 years now, but it still charges the same $175 for a subscription that it has for, yes, the past 10 years now. Either Shadow Stats is giving itself away for what it thinks are now worthless green pieces of paper, or it doesn't really buy what it's selling people. I'll give you one guess which.
This is one thing you can't blame on Trump. As historian Rick Perlstein points out, snake-oil salesmen have been inextricably linked with the conservative movement as long as there's been a conservative movement. It started with direct-mail fundraisers who didn't actually spend much of their funds on the things they said they would. Then it moved on to former presidential candidates hawking everything from dubious financial products such as reverse mortgages, in Fred Thompson's case, to dubious erectile dysfunction cures, in Herman Cain's, to dubious dietary supplements that were supposed to cure diabetes and Bible verses that were supposed to cure cancer, in Mike Huckabee's. Now, though, there are innovative new business models, such as scaring people into buying overpriced gold bars, as Glenn Beck has, or end-of-days survival packs, as Ron Paul has, to protect themselves against the hyperinflation that's always a day away.
At some point, these scams went from being a side business to the business of the conservative movement. Media personalities figured out it was more lucrative to tell people what they wanted to hear so they'd listen to your ads than to risk losing them by telling them what actually was. So, if your viewers thought that President Obama was a gun-taking, job-killing, race-baiting apologizer-in-chief, well, that's what you'd say. That's a great way to win ratings, but not elections. This retreat from reality, you see, has made it all but impossible for the Republican establishment to call out Trump's obvious untruths. How can you convince your voters that the unemployment rate isn't doctored, as Trump says it is, when Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and the Wall Street Journal op-eds have been telling them it is? You can't.
It's Shadow Stats all the way down.