Listen to President Obama, and you’ll hear that job growth is stronger than at any point in the past 20 years, and — as he said in his final State of the Union address — “anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction.”
Listen to Donald Trump and you’ll hear something completely different. The billionaire Republican candidate for president told The Washington Post last week that the economy is one big Federal Reserve bubble waiting to burst, and that as for job growth, “we’re not at 5 percent unemployment. We’re at a number that’s probably into the 20s if you look at the real number.” Not only that, Trump said, but the numbers are juiced: “That was a number that was devised, statistically devised, to make politicians — and in particular, presidents — look good. And I wouldn’t be getting the kind of massive crowds that I’m getting if the number was a real number.”
It’s easy enough to dismiss — as a phalanx of economists and analysts did — Trump’s claims as yet another one of his all-too-frequent campaign lines that have little to do with reality. But with this one, at least, Trump is tapping into a deep and mostly overlooked well of popular suspicion of government numbers and a deeply held belief that what “we the people” are told about the economy by the government is lies, damn lies and statistics designed to benefit the elite at the expense of the working class. The stubborn persistence of these beliefs should be a reminder that just because the United States is doing well in general, that doesn’t mean everyone in the country is. It’s also a warning to experts and policymakers that in the real world, there is no “the economy,” there are many, and generalizations have a way of glossing over some very rough patches.
Since the mid-20th century, when the U.S. government began keeping and compiling our modern suite of economic numbers, there has been constant skepticism of the reports, coming from different corners depending on economic trends and the broader political climate. In the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, organized labor was fairly convinced that the government was purposely underestimating inflation and the cost of living to keep Social Security payments low and wages from rising. George Meany, the powerful head of the American Federation of Labor at the time, claimed that the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which compiled both employment and inflation numbers, had “become identified with an effort to freeze wages and is not longer a free agency of statistical research.”
Over the decades, those views hardened. Throughout the 1970s, as workers struggled with unemployment and stagflation, the government continually tweaked its formulas for measuring prices. By and large, these changes and new formulas were designed to make the figures more accurate in a fast-changing world. But for those who were already convinced the government was trying to paint a deliberately false picture, the tweaks and innovations were interpreted as a devious way to avoid spending money to help the ailing middle class, not trying to measure what was actually happening to design policies to help address it. The commissioner of BLS at the time, Janet Norwood, dismissed those concerns in testimony to Congress in the late 1970s, saying that when people don’t get the number they want, “they feel there must be something wrong with the indicator itself.”
Employment figures are sometimes seen as equally suspect. Jack Welch, the once-legendary former CEO of GE, blithely accused the Obama administration of manipulating the final employment report before the 2012 election to make the economic recovery look better than it was. “Unbelievable jobs numbers … these Chicago guys will do anything … can’t debate so change numbers,” he tweeted after that last October report showed better-than-expected job growth and lower-than-anticipated unemployment rate. His arguments were later fleshed out by New York Post columnist John Crudele, who went on to charge the Census Bureau (which works with BLS to create the samples for the unemployment rate) with faking and fabricating the numbers to help Obama win reelection.
These views are not fringe. Type the search terms “inflation is false” into Google, and you will get reams of articles and analysis from mainstream outlets and voices, including investment guru Bill Gross (who referred to inflation numbers as a “haute con job”). Similar results pop up with the terms “real unemployment rate,” and given how many ways there are to count employment, there are legitimate issues with the headline number.
The cohort that responds to Trump reads those numbers in a starkly different light from the cohort laughing at him for it. Whenever the unemployment rate comes out showing improvement and hiring, those who are experiencing dwindling wages and shrinking opportunities might see a meticulously constructed web of lies meant to paint a positive picture so that the plight of tens of millions who have dropped out of the workforce can be ignored. The chairman of the Gallup organization, Jim Clifton, sees so many flaws with the way unemployment is measured that he has called the official rate a “Big Lie.” In the Democratic presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders has also weighed in, saying the real unemployment rate is at best above 10 percent.
Beneath the anger and the distrust — which extend to a booming stock market that helps the wealthy and banks flush with profit even after the financial crisis — there lies a very real problem with how economists, the media and policymakers discuss economics. No, the bureaucrats in the Labor and Commerce departments who compile these numbers aren’t a cabal engaged in a cover-up. And no, the Fed is not an Illuminati conspiracy. But the idea that a few simple big numbers that are at best averages to describe a large system we call “the economy” can adequately capture the stories of 320 million people is a fiction, one that we tell ourselves regularly, and which millions of people know to be false to their own experience.
It may be true that there is a national unemployment rate measured at 5 percent. But it is also true that for white men without a college degree, or white men who had worked factory jobs until the mid-2000s with no more than a high school education, the unemployment reality is much worse (though it’s even worse for black and Hispanic men, who don’t seem to be responding by flocking to Trump in large numbers). Even when those with these skill sets can get a job, the pay is woefully below a living wage. Jobs that don’t pay well still count, in the stats, as jobs. Telling people who are barely getting by that the economy is just fine must appear much more than insensitive. It is insulting, and it feels like a denial of what they are experiencing.
The chords Trump strikes when he makes these claims, therefore, should be taken more seriously than the claims themselves. We need to be much more diligent in understanding what our national numbers do and do not tell us, and how much they obscure. In trying to hang our sense of what’s what on a few big numbers, we risk glossing over the tens of millions whose lives don’t fit those numbers and don’t fit the story. “The economy” may be doing just fine, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is. Inflation might be low, but millions can be struggling to meet basic costs just the same.
So yes, Trump is wrong, and he’s the culmination of decades of paranoia and distrust of government reports. The economy overall is doing just fine. But people are still struggling. We don’t have to share the paranoia or buy into the conspiratorial narrative to acknowledge that. A great nation, the one Trump promises to restore, can embrace more than one story, and can afford to speak to those left out of our rosy national numbers along with those whose experience reflect them.