Third Party & Independents Archives

Political Implications of Statistics

National sentiment depends not only on the state of society but on people’s perceptions of this state. A troubling piece by PBS NewsHour economics reporter Paul Solman hints that the unemployment rate (already a statistical construct to begin with; notice the seasonal and retroactive adjustments) may seriously underestimate the true level of joblessness. He says:

2.2 million more Americans are getting disability than in 1982. Like discouraged workers, they’re also out of the workforce. If they weren’t, David Autor (PDF )thinks disability alone would add considerably to today’s unemployment rate. And then there’s prison. In 1982, about ˝ million Americans were behind bars. Today, the number is above 2 million… So, not only do the incarcerated make today’s unemployment rate for men seem lower than it should be because so many more of them are behind bars, they may suppress the rate for years to come by becoming disproportionately discouraged workers once they re-enter society.

That then ends the list of adjustments. Add them all up, and today’s 6.4 percent official unemployment rate approaches 1982’s 10.8 percent record, at least for men. There’s one last way to confirm this. Back in 1982, the percent of total working age men not employed for whatever reason– discouraged, disabled, jailed, retired early, or officially out of work– was 17.3 percent. But as of last month, that total was even higher: 17.8 percent not employed, which makes the current job bust, at least for men, look far deeper than the official unemployment rate suggests.

The implications are unsettling. First, the unemployment rate number (often quoted in mainstream publications) is easy to understand, and a lowballed number naturally favors the incumbent. Second, it damages the political decision-making process. For example, it causes political leaders to have different spending priorities and to support spending on "voluntary projects" (e.g., foreign wars) which a nation can ill afford. Third, it raises the question of whether convicted felons deserve to be disenfranchised. If an increasing percentage of our society are to be regarded as criminals (and looking at RIAA-backed proposals, it now seems that music sharing merits prison time and possibly even a felony conviction), then I have to wonder whether a democracy that disenfranchizes a substantial portion of its citizenry can in fact be responsive to social problems. (Never mind that our political system has already proven its responsiveness to the sad plights of Halliburton, Enron and US steelmakers).

Posted by rjnagle at August 7, 2003 10:24 AM