Friday, June 17, 2011

Jobs numbers: mixed messages from the Patrick/Murray Administration

Angry Daisy
 UPDATE: I'm re-posting this to the top of the 'roll, because Daisy has a good back-and-forth with Secretary Bialecki starting up in the comments field.  Also, Daisy correctly notes that the Globe's full treatment of the job numbers, in the paper today, is considerably more even-handed than was the initial blurb criticized below.

 ORIGINAL POST (6/16):

My wickid smaht friend Daisy (who I am trying to convince to blog with me at CriticalMASS) is foaming mad today because once again the Patrick Administration is picking and choosing its jobs numbers, and Boston.com is happily parroting their spin under a "staff" byline.  She has a point.

This is the brief article that has Daisy in a dither - not the text so much as the headline: "Mass. unemployment rate drops to 7.6%."  Unsurprisingly, the "news" the Patrick Administration is focusing on today is that number, juxtaposed with the national rate of 9.1%.  "On the mend and on the move" and what-not.

The trouble is, even as our unemployment rate is going down, we continue to lose jobs - 4,000 of them last month.  Those two apparent realities (job losses combined with lower overall unemployment rate) suggest our workforce is contracting, as more of the long-term unemployed simply give up and drop out of the workforce.  That's hardly good news.  The Patrick Administration's spin - echoed in the Globe's headline - is exactly the opposite of what it was in months when the unemployment rate went up, but we added jobs.  Then (understandably) their focus was on the jobs, not the rate.  Now it's the rate, not the jobs.

By the way, our total workforce shrunk in May, along with the number of employed residents.  Despite all of that, perceived reality ends up a function of the headline, not the math (hence, Daisy's frustration with the headline).

It seems May's job losses came as a surprise to the Patrick Administration.  Otherwise, it is unlikely that Greg Bialecki, Patrick's Secretary of Housing and Economic Development, would have written this earlier in the week on Red Mass Group (in the comments under his initial post*):
We think the better measure of our success is the employment data: is our economy adding jobs? We think a lower unemployment rate is not necessarily the best measure of economic success. The unemployment rate may go down because people stop looking for work or retire or because people leave the state (this has been a problem for Massachusetts). We obviously do want the unemployment rate to go down (as it has been doing), but we believe that if our economy keeps adding jobs, then it will do so.
Secretary Bialecki ought to share this bit of wisdom with the Governor's Deputy Press Secretary Alec Loftus, who today is merrily Tweeting: "MA unemployment drops to 7.6 %; lowest since Feb. '09. Faster and stronger than rest of U.S. @ 9.1%."  The first two points are accurate as a factual matter, if misleading in context.  The last one, the bit about "faster/stronger"?  Not so much.  As Secretary Bialecki wrote, "The unemployment rate may go down because people stop looking for work or retire or because people leave the state (this has been a problem for Massachusetts)."

Indeed.

* I hope the fact that he unwittingly stepped on the Administration's future message here does not deter Secretary Bialecki from engaging on economic issues at RMG and elsewhere. I was surprised and pleased to see that post, and the fact that he followed it up with substantive responses to the comments it elicited. Kudos for that.

5 comments:

  1. The truth is that you really can't generalize with any confidence from one month's statistics. The bigger (and statistically more reliable) picture is that over the last year, our state's workforce has been growing, our total employment has been growing and our unemployment rate has been dropping. So Alec's tweet is neither inaccurate or misleading.

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  2. Thank you, Secretary Bialecki, for taking the time to respond. Your willingness to engage with citizens - especially critics of Governor Patrick's - is greatly appreciated.

    I absolutely agree that you can't generalize from one month's statistics. But the reality is that every month the Administration attempts to do just that. I don't fault the Administration for putting a positive spin on less-than-great data - that's politics. But denying that there’s any bad news in the data is problematic. I heard Secretary of Labor and Workforce Development Joanne Goldstein on WBZ radio this morning, explaining away the loss of 4,000 jobs as “probably a statistical anomaly.” And instead of taking a victory lap on the drop in unemployment rate, wouldn't it have been refreshing if the Administration had issued the same caution that you did regarding the unemployment rate? Namely, that "the unemployment rate may go down because people stop looking for work or retire or because people leave the state."

    Regarding Alec's tweet, I do think it is misleading. He implies that our drop in unemployment rate, and the fact that it's lower than the nation's as a whole, means that we are growing "faster and stronger" than other states. (It's actually a little unclear whether he intends to compare Massachusetts with other states or just the nation as a whole; if the latter, well, most states have lower unemployment than the nation). But as has been discussed over at RMG, both our actual unemployment rate and our change in unemployment rate over the last year put us in the middle of the pack when compared with other states, not at the top. Which is why you emphasized that "a lower unemployment rate is not necessarily the best measure of economic success."

    Do I think that the Massachusetts economy is generally moving in the right direction? Yes. But I think the Administration and the press do the public a disservice when they treat every economic release as unequivocal good news. And don't get me started on the phrase "faster and stronger" - a post for another day!

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  3. By the way, credit where it's due: the article in the Globe today is much more balanced than the one posted online yesterday.

    www.boston.com/business/articles/2011/06/17/mass_economic_recovery_shows_weakness_in_may/

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  4. Guess Daisy was too much for him...

    Mprt Zuckerman has an on-point op-ed in US News today. He basically agrees with Secretary Bialecki's first position... the one the Secretary walked back from somewhat unconvincingly, overruled by a flack's Tweet.

    Titled, Why the Jobs Situation Is Worse Than It Looks, the Zuckerman column is worth a read.

    http://www.usnews.com/opinion/mzuckerman/articles/2011/06/20/why-the-jobs-situation-is-worse-than-it-looks_print.html

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  5. They should write the truth because people have the right to know it, if the employment rate is going up or down so people can prepare on what effect that event may take place.
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