Conservatives are dumbfounded by the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ household survey of unemployment, which found 873,000 more Americans working in September and the unemployment rate falling by 0.3 points. Some are being driven to derangement: If the numbers are that favorable, then the books must be cooked.
The household survey is basically just a really big poll, so its results might well be inaccurate due to sampling error. The 90 percent confidence interval for the survey is plus or minus a bit more than 400,000 jobs. In other words, if last month’s true job creation figure was actually 450,000, the survey would still have shown 873,000 or more jobs created about 5 percent of the time just due to random variation.
For this reason, it is perfectly healthy to wonder whether September’s job performance was actually as strong as the survey suggests. (Though, of course, 450,000 wouldn't be a shabby result, either.) It’s also possible that the numbers are right and that the payroll numbers we saw all summer (which lagged behind Automatic Data Processing Inc.’s alternative survey of payrolls) were too low.
Either way, it’s nuts to entertain the idea that BLS is cooking the books. It’s not as if President Barack Obama and Valerie Jarrett sit down in the Oval Office and decide what this month’s numbers should be. There is a whole multiagency bureaucracy that would somehow have to be drawn into the conspiracy. Federal statistics agencies are not exactly the sort of nimble, flexible organizations I would try to involve in a secret fraud.
But that hasn’t stopped a lot of conservatives from putting forth conspiracy theories.
Jack Welch, who once ran General Electric Co., one of the largest companies in the world, tweeted “Unbelievable jobs numbers.. these Chicago guys will do anything.. can’t debate so change numbers.”
Jay Cost of the Weekly Standard has been pushing the idea that the Obama administration has been fiddling the numbers with increasing agitation, saying, “You think this stuff doesn't happen? You're living in a fantasy land. Presidential politics is PURE HARDBALL.” (Cost was recently writing about why the presidential election polls are all wrong, and he’s also on the record as a denier of official inflation statistics.)
Conn Carroll of the Washington Examiner thinks it’s a bottom-up conspiracy, with survey respondents lying and saying they got jobs to make the president look good. (No word on why they just started doing so last month).
J.D. Foster at the Heritage Foundation is a little more circumspect. He believes September's results are simply a statistical fluke, and he tut-tuts those who jumped to the conclusion that the survey was rigged. But if the October survey matches the September one, “then we will know the Obama Administration was playing games with the numbers as alleged.”
This reaction isn't surprising. Conservatives have become very good at taking inconvenient facts and insisting that they are frauds perpetuated by liberal conspiracists. We’ve seen it with the dismissal of the last few weeks’ election polling. We see it with inflation statistics and voter fraud. Most important, we see it with climate change.
Liberals are drawn to conspiracy theories, too (remember the claims that George W. Bush was wearing a wire in the first 2004 debate?) but with a key difference. Liberal elites push back on conspiracies that bubble up among the grass-roots, while conservative elites increasingly encourage the theories. Climate-change denial, in particular, has become a completely mainstream position for conservatives from the grass-roots up through the elites.
The donors and benefactors behind conservative publications and think tanks aren't embarrassed by conspiracy mongering; in many cases, it’s exactly what they’re donating to support. There are also lots of conservative consumers willing to pay good money to be lied to.
That’s why the left’s conspiracy-mongering remains a mostly volunteer activity while the right has Breitbart.com, the Daily Caller, The Blaze and a network of other well-funded for- and non-profit organizations that spread disinformation within the conservative bubble.
This model has helped conservatives stay “on message,” and it has helped build support for policies (such as an absence of carbon regulation) that would be less popular if most people knew the data. But it also keeps making conservatives dumber and dumber.
Willfully abandoning situational awareness doesn't just make it hard for conservatives to see what the inflation rate is or what global temperatures are doing. It also makes it hard to figure out whether you are going to win or lose elections.
I hope that Obama’s win despite the middling economy will be a wake-up call for the right. But my guess is they will come up with yet another non-factual explanation of how the game was rigged against them.
(Corrects description of General Electric in sixth paragraph.)
Read more breaking commentary from Josh Barro and other Bloomberg View columnists and editors at the Ticker.