Magazine article The New Yorker

Real Numbers

Magazine article The New Yorker

Real Numbers

Article excerpt

Real Numbers

On January 22, 1930, not quite three months after the stock-market crash and the ensuing economic collapse, the Times, in a front-page article, quoted President Herbert Hoover saying that "the tide of employment has changed in the right direction." His Secretary of Labor, James J. Davis, citing reports on America's industries, pronounced the country "well on the way to complete recovery."

Reading the article, Frances Perkins, the industrial commissioner of New York State, was horrified. She knew that the President was relying on data from the U.S. Employment Service, a notoriously inaccurate source, rather than from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which showed that huge numbers of people were being laid off. She imagined the psychological harm that Hoover's words would inflict on the unemployed, writing in her memoir that she feared the jobless "would feel that there was something wrong with them personally. A great despair would enter their hearts." Young people would "read the story and say, 'Why doesn't Papa work?' "

Perkins called a press conference, prompting a national scandal about statistical methodology. Within a month, the Times was condemning Hoover's misuse of data and praising Perkins (who went on to become Secretary of Labor under Franklin Roosevelt). The economist overseeing the unemployment numbers quit when he learned that the Administration also was trying to alter Bureau of Labor Statistics data to make them seem sunnier. Congress commissioned the development of objective employment data, and, since the nineteen-forties, two government data sets have been essential measures of the nation's economic health.

Those statistics have often played a role in politics. In good times--under Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton--the data have helped an incumbent win reelection. In bad times--Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush--the data have contributed to defeat. Still, until Donald Trump, no major candidate or President had publicly challenged the validity of even the grimmest numbers. Throughout the campaign, Trump openly mocked employment data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Bureau of Economic Analysis as "phony" and "totally fiction." His tone changed when he wanted to take credit for a good jobs report. In March, Sean Spicer said at a press briefing that the President wanted to make clear that the unemployment rate "may have been phony in the past, but it's very real now." The White House press corps laughed, but, to government statisticians, the words sounded less like a joke and more like a threat. "When I saw that, I said, 'Wow. …

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