Friday, February 5, 2010

The Deceit of Numbers

Can anyone explain to me what the jobless numbers that were released today are really saying?

I've been following the jobs numbers intently ever since I was terminated, but rarely has it been easy for me to comprehend what they were trying to tell me. Truth is, I was never much of a mathematician when I was growing up. When I was in school, I remember being told by my math teachers that numbers don't lie. That notion appealed to me, even if the numbers were something of a mystery, because it reflected the reverence my parents had for truth, a reverence they passed along to me.

And, even though my leaning, first as a journalism student and then as a practicing journalist, was to words, I could see a certain logic in the claim that numbers didn't lie. I knew quite well that words were open to interpretation. But numbers were not.

At least, that is what I believed when I was growing up.

But now I tend to agree with fictional pollster/political operative Joey Lucas on The West Wing, who told Josh that numbers lie all the time.

That, I believe, is because of the assumptions that people attach to numbers, and, in this economy, that seems to be particularly true of unemployment numbers. Raw jobless numbers seem to be contradictory, anyway, and it isn't helped by the fact that everyone, on the political right and the political left, manipulates them.

The numbers themselves don't lie. I mean, five of anything is still five, right? The lie is to be found in the interpretation.

I offer, as Exhibit A, this morning's home page of the New York Times website.

As you can see, the headline on the story about the unemployment report says, "Labor Market Shows Signs of Reawakening in New Data."

But is that really what the story says?

Actually, no. The story does report that the unemployment rate went down, from 10.0% to 9.7%, but the economy added no jobs. In fact, it lost 20,000 jobs — which isn't nearly as many as the economy was losing a year ago but it's still a net loss.

And the Times conceded the "unusual degree of statistical uncertainty" in the latest jobs report.

"The Labor Department revised past data to show that the economy comprised 1.36 million fewer jobs in December than previously thought," report Peter Goodman and Javier Hernandez. "The revisions showed the economy lost 150,000 jobs in December — far more than the 85,000 initially reported.

"The report also featured a new way in which the government estimates the population, which is used to calculate the unemployment rate. That prompted some economists to dismiss the drop in joblessness as a statistical quirk."

Like all the other unemployed Americans, I would like to believe that the numbers really do indicate that a "reawakening" is under way in the labor market.

But I can only conclude that the deception continues.

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