Why We Should Ignore the Unemployment Number -- Whatever It

by SixFigureStart | March 03, 2010

  • My Vault
The monthly unemployment figures are out Friday, and if I'm any judge of government statements, it's likely to be a higher figure than we saw in January (a surprising dip to 9.7 percent).

The reason I'm so sure: White House economic advisor Larry Summers has already started a damage-control exercise, suggesting that the winter weather will take its toll on the number.

"Who knows what the next number is going to be," he told CNBC, "The blizzards that affected much of the country during the last month are likely to distort the statistics, and in past blizzards those statistics have been distorted by 100,000 to 200,000 jobs."

While that may strike some as a piece of politicking to cover up a poor performance, Summers' underlying point is worth taking note of: that it's important "to look past whatever the next figures are to gauge the underlying trends."

No matter the number we see on Friday, jobs are such a hot-button issue that one side or the other in Washington will find a vested interest (a/k/a short-term political gain) in trumpeting it. The danger, as Summers suggests, is that that behavior—ably abetted by the echo chamber of the media and blogosphere—will drown out the bigger picture of where we're actually headed. That's a pattern that can only emerge over a longer period of time, and that depends on many more factors than a simple measure of who happens to be out of work and actively looking for a job.

We've all seen recently what can happen when the big picture is ignored for the sake of scoring political points (right, Senator Bunning?)—and the only place it leads is to more pain for the average American, and for job seekers in particular. For that reason, maybe the best thing we could do come Friday is to ignore the number altogether—whatever it is. It might not solve the jobs crisis or repair the economy, but talking about it isn't going to do that either. However, a discussion to figure out how to create jobs—and to ensure that people have the necessary skills to do them—just might. Any bets on which we're likely to see dominating the Sunday morning chat shows?

--Posted by Phil Stott, Vault.com

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