Unemployment Imagined and Real

National unemployment figures have been undercounting the true number of those unemployed. Rachel Siegel reports Fed chair: Unemployment rate was closer to 10 percent, not 6.3 percent, in January:

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell said Wednesday that the unemployment rate in January was “close to 10 percent,” significantly higher than the 6.3 percent rate reported by the Labor Department last week.

The discrepancy is partly due to many unemployed Americans being misclassified as employed, Powell said during a virtual speech at the Economic Club of New York. After accounting for people who have left the labor force since February 2020 and other factors, the unemployment rate is much higher than the official figure, he said.

“Correcting this misclassification and counting those who have left the labor force since last February as unemployed would boost the unemployment rate to close to 10 percent in January,” Powell said Wednesday.

Nationally, large numbers of economists watch and evaluate federal data, so talented people are reviewing the accuracy of economic claims.

Locally, however, the story is different. There’s much less local data, and without these data, it’s easy in-the-moment for local policymakers to offer baseless claims about progress.

It’s not easy, as officials in small towns have come to see, to sustain false claims about success: year after year of mediocre performance leads to difficult conditions impossible for rational people to ignore. The impulse to offer baseless claims, including ones with distorted data and fallacious reasoning, runs up against a stark sight: the outward indicia of poverty are everywhere.

Refutation beats boosterism, and the strongest refutation comes from visible and prevalent conditions. Mendacious policymakers descend to where it doesn’t matter how they distort data, as people rightly believe what they see over what policymakers falsely claim.

If small towns had better data, perhaps refutation would have been even more effective. There’s sadness in this, as bad policies lasted longer than they should have, to the detriment of the community.

There’s also tragedy in the present strength of refutation: no caring person – and least of all this libertarian – would have wanted the case against mediocrity to be so true as it now is.

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