By Bob Sanchez, JMI Policy Director
Posted Thursday, June 14, 2012
It’s a safe bet that a good share of the world’s attention this summer will be focused on two events. The 17 days of the 2012 Summer Olympics will begin inLondonon July 27. The U.S. Presidential campaign, which culminates – we hope — on November 6, is already underway but can be expected to heat up in earnest right after Labor Day.
In London, preparations for the Olympics include unprecedented security precautions, with Royal Navy vessels floating in theThamesand troops armed with rocket launchers perched atop some of the city’s taller buildings. Also among the key preparations for the London Olympics: Readying state-of-the-art facilities for drug-testing the athletes for evidence of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs).
Sadly, submitting to drug testing has become a necessity – not only in the Olympics, but in all professional and amateur sports – even at the prep school level. The use of PEDs is rightly considered a form of cheating for the purpose of gaining an unfair competitive advantage. Getting caught using PEDs has turned popular winners and sports heroes into ostracized losers, even felons — not only in the Olympics, but also in sports ranging from bicycle racing to Major League Baseball. So it’s good that the organizers of the Olympics now have the protocol, the rules, and the facilities in place to guard against athletes’ use of the sporting world’s version of PEDs, where the “D” refers to “drugs.”
Unfortunately, however, the U.S.presidential campaign lacks a mechanism to deal with the political arena’s PEDs: performance enhancing data – that is, statistics spun in a way that enhances the public’s perception of an elected official’s performance. Consider, for instance, the latest statistics regarding jobs. In May, the Obama Administration hailed April’s modest decline in unemployment – to 8.1 percent from 8.2 percent — as a sign that the economy is recovering. However, as the Washington Post reported, it’s much more complicated than that:
“If the same percentage of adults were in the workforce today as when Barack Obama took office, the unemployment rate would be 11.1 percent. If the percentage was where it was when George W. Bush took office, the unemployment rate would be 13.1 percent….
“The explanation is a little-watched measure known as the “labor force participation rate.” That tracks the number of working-age Americans who are holding a job or looking for one. Between March and April, it dropped by 342,000. But because the official unemployment rate counts only those workers who are actively seeking work, that actually made the unemployment rate go down….
“The implications for returning to what economists call ‘full employment’ are significant. According to calculations by Michael Greenstone of the Hamilton Project, if the labor force grows by 90,000 a month, then an economy creating 200,000 jobs a month would take about eight years to return to full employment. If the labor force grows by 125,000 a month — plausible if discouraged workers begin returning to the labor force — it will take almost 14 years to return to full employment.
“It’s easy to see why some workers would, in the current environment, get discouraged and stop looking for work altogether. There are about 3.7 job seekers for every available opening.
“We’re not going to see the labor force tick back up until there are enough opportunities that the people who enter aren’t faced with months of fruitless job searches,” said Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute.”
The bottom line is this: When President Obama’s re-election campaign portrays a slight decline in unemployment as a sign of economic recovery, it is using PEDs — performance enhancing data — to put his administration’s performance in the best possible light, a tactic all incumbents seeking re-election routinely employ. And, yes, tracking unemployment involves very complex economic issues. For instance, some of the shrinkage of the workforce is less attributable to discouragement and more to demographics. Baby boomers are leaving the workforce – some by voluntarily taking early retirement, other involuntarily retiring earlier than they’d planned as their employer downsizes. The Washington Post article presents both sides of the story, though there’s no getting away from the reality that theU.S.is experiencing a “recovery” more anemic than virtually any on record as employers wary of Obamacare and the burgeoning national debt take a wait-and-see attitude about hiring additional workers.
One of the wisest sayings ever coined – variously attributed to Benjamin Disraeli and others – is this: “There are three kinds of falsehoods: lies, damn lies, and statistics.” As the campaign for the White House heats up this summer, it’s a timely reminder for voters to beware of the political arena’s PEDs.