Rigging jobs data hard, but disbelievers abound
Washington • Sasquatch might as well have traipsed across the White House lawn Friday with a lost Warren Commission file on his way to the studio where NASA staged the moon landing.
Conspiracy theorists came out in force after the government reported a sudden drop in the U.S. unemployment rate one month before Election Day. Their message was that the Obama administration would do anything to ensure a November victory, including manipulating unemployment data.
The conspiracy was widely rejected. Officials at the Labor Department said the jobs figures are calculated by highly trained government employees without any political interference. Democrats and even some Republicans said they also found the charges implausible.
"Stop with the dumb conspiracy theories. Good grief," Tony Fratto, who worked for President George W. Bush, weighed in on Twitter.
"No serious person ... would make claims like that," said Alan Krueger, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.
Manipulating the government's monthly unemployment report is impossible because of the large number of people mostly civil servants and not political appointees involved in compiling the data, said the former commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"I think it would be impossible to really manipulate the numbers," said Keith Hall, who was appointed by former President George W. Bush and served from 2008 to 2012 as commissioner of the independent statistical agency , which produces the report. "Certainly, it would be impossible to manipulate the numbers and not be found out."
Yet that didn't stop the chatter. The allegations were a measure of how politicized the monthly unemployment report has become near the end of a campaign that has focused on the economy and jobs.
The conspiracy theories erupted after former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, a Republican and supporter of GOP candidate Mitt Romney, tweeted his skepticism five minutes after the Labor Department announced that the unemployment rate had fallen to 7.8 percent in September from 8.1 percent the month before.
"Unbelievable jobs numbers..these Chicago guys will do anything..can't debate so change numbers," Welch said, referring to the site of Obama campaign headquarters.
The drop in unemployment was announced two days after Obama's lackluster performance in his first debate with Romney.
The Obama administration wasn't given much time to gloat about the strong economic improvement. Instead, it had to defend statisticians and economists against accusations made without any supporting evidence.
The jobs report is prepared under tight security each month without any oversight or input from the White House. It is based on data collected by an army of census workers, who interview Americans in 60,000 households by telephone or door-to-door.
Eight days before the unemployment rate is made public, the bureau's office suite goes into lockdown. Tom Nardone, a 36-year veteran at the agency who oversees preparation of the report, keeps crucial papers in a safe in his office.
A big reason for the security has nothing to do with politics. The data could move financial markets if it were released early.
The BLS, the statistical division of the Labor Department, collected and analyzed data and calculated the unemployment rate before Wednesday night's presidential debate.
Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors, said that it's "not that unusual" for the rate to move by three-tenths of a percent in one month. It's happened 12 times in the past 10 years.
Economists offered more plausible reasons for skepticism than conspiracy theorists. A big chunk of the increase in employed Americans came from those who had to settle for part-time work: 582,000 more people reported that they were working part-time last month but wanted full-time jobs.
Romney didn't discredit the government data. But plenty of conservatives did that work for him.
Conn Carroll, an editorial writer at the Washington Examiner, tweeted: "I don't think BLS cooked numbers. I think a bunch of Dems lied about getting jobs. That would have same effect."
At the end of the day, it wasn't just the political elite commenting. Angelia Levy, a researcher at the Federal Judicial Center, the research arm of the federal judiciary, told her 588 Twitter followers that Welch's comments were "unbelievable."
"All of the sudden they're questioning this data that's been reported for decades," the Democrat said in a phone interview. "It's so hypocritical and ridiculous."
Justin Wolfers, a professor of business and public policy at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, went on Twitter to say Welch "just labeled himself an idiot."
In a follow-up phone call, Wolfers said the economists who calculate the monthly jobs report "are nerds who spend their lives crunching numbers for the public service. To impute their integrity is outrageous."
The agency has been in the political glare before.
In 1971, President Nixon took aim at it after a top official, Howard Goldstein, publicly attributed a steep drop in unemployment to largely technical factors. The administration reorganized the agency and installed several officials in newly created positions. That led to charges from Democrats that the GOP administration was politicizing the bureau.
Welch said later in the day in a Fox News interview: "I don't know what the right number is, but I'll tell you, these numbers don't smell right when you think about where the economy is right now."