Living Data Day

“The data zealots have utterly discombobulated themselves,” Bob Herbert of The New York Times tells us in his most recent column.

“They were expecting something on the order of 150,000 new jobs to have been created in January. That would have been a lousy number,” Mr. Herbert said, “but they were fully prepared to spin it as being pretty good. They thought the official jobless rate might hop up a tick to 9.5 percent.

“Instead, the economy created just 36,000 jobs in January, an absolutely dreadful number. But the unemployment rate fell like a stone from 9.4 percent to 9.0 percent.

“The crunchers stared at the numbers in disbelief. They moved them this way and that. No matter how they arranged them, they made no sense. Nothing even close to enough jobs were being created to bring the unemployment rate down, but for two successive months it had dropped sharply. (It dived from 9.8 percent to 9.4 percent in December.)

“A baffled commentator on CNBC said, ‘I think there is an improvement in the economy, though you can’t see it in today’s payroll survey.’

“Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics, who is frequently very good at this stuff, said, ‘I think these numbers are meaningless. I don’t think they mean anything.’

“What data zealots need to do is leave their hermetically sealed rooms and step outside, take a walk among the millions of Americans who are hurting to the bone. They should talk with families that are suffering, losing their homes, doubling up, checking into homeless shelters.

“We behave as though the numbers are an end unto themselves – just get the G.D.P. up or the jobless rate down – and we’ll be on our way to fat city. But the numbers are just tools, abstractions to help guide us. Orient us. They aren’t the be-all and end-all. They don’t tell us squat about the flesh-and-blood reality of the mom or dad lying awake in the dark of night, worrying about the repo man coming for the family van or the foreclosure notice that’s sure to materialize any day now.

“The policy makers who rely on the data zealots are just as detached from the real world of the real people. They’re always promising in the most earnest tones imaginable to do something about unemployment, to ease the awful squeeze on the middle class (policy makers never talk about the poor), to reform education, and so on.

“They say those things because they have to. But they are far more obsessed with the numbers than they are with the struggles and suffering of real people. You won’t hear policy makers acknowledging that the unemployment numbers would be much worse if not for the millions of people who have left the work force over the past few years. What happened to those folks? How are they and their families faring?

“The policy makers don’t tell us that most of the new jobs being created in such meager numbers are, in fact, poor ones, with lousy pay and few or no benefits. What we hear is what the data zealots pump out week after week, that the market is up, retail sales are strong, Wall Street bonuses are streaking, as always, to the moon, and that businesses are sitting on mountains of cash. So all must be right with the world.

“Jobs? Well, the less said the better.

“What’s really happening, of course, is the same thing that’s been happening in this country for the longest time – the folks at the top are doing fabulously well and they are not interested in the least in spreading the wealth around.

“The people running the country – the ones with the real clout, whether Democrats or Republicans – are all part of this power elite. Ordinary people may be struggling, but both the Obama administration and the Republican Party leadership are down on their knees slavishly kissing the rings of the financial and corporate kingpins.

“I love when the wackos call president Obama a socialist. Wasn’t it his budget director, Peter Orszag, who moved effortlessly from his job in the administration to a hotshot post at Citigroup, beneficiary of tons of government largess? And didn’t the president’s new chief of staff, William Daley, arrive in his powerful new post fresh from the executive suite of JPMorgan Chase? And isn’t the incoming chairman of Mr. Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness very conveniently the chairman and chief executive of General Electric, Jeffrey Immelt?

“You might ask: Who represents working people? The answer, as Tevye would say with grave emphasis in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, is, ‘I don’t know.’

“Maybe the data zealots have stumbled on a solution. They’ve created a model in which a radically insufficient number of jobs has resulted in a sharp decline in the official gauge of unemployment. If that trend can be sustained, we’ll eventually get the jobless rate down to zero. People will be suffering, but full employment will have finally been achieved.” –

We might also ask: Why doesn’t anyone else on “The Times” concern themselves with the nation’s disastrous unemployment problem. Tevye would know the answer to that one. They’re also “down on their knees slavishly kissing the rings of the financial and corporate kingpins,” he’d say.

Tevye would probably tell us that we’re wasting our time pleading for another Emergency Shipbuilding Program because that would put a stop to the kneeling and kissing that has taken place in Washington over the past three or four decades.

Kneeling and kissing is where the real money is, he’d say. Everyone knows that no one gets rich assisting the downtrodden. There’s no largess there.

But Tevye would then tell us that the downtrodden can stay down and trodden for only so long. Look at what’s happening in Egypt and Tunisia, he’d say. That’s what joblessness leads to.