December 2nd, 2011
06:41 PM ET

Letters to the President #1047: '2 + 2 = WHAT?'

Reporter's Note: The latest unemployment figures came out. For the moment I'm still employed, so that’s what I’m writing about in my daily letter to the White House.

Dear Mr. President,

Here’s an old joke: How many accountants does it take to change a light bulb?

Well, how many do you want it to take?

This is precisely how I feel about unemployment numbers these days. It should be easy for any American to know if the number of people out of work is getting bigger or smaller. We should be able to track this one indicator of our economic health with little effort, and yet we can’t. Even this very basic measurement has become just as convoluted and confusing as everything else we get from the DC crowd.

When I heard the news this morning that the unemployment rate had dropped, I said “There’s some good news!” Within minutes, however, I was receiving alerts from analysts saying, “Hold the champagne, Charlie!”

The issue seems to be that when people stop looking for work we stop counting them as unemployed. So both the percentage of people without work and the actual number of people who would like to have jobs could rise in a month, and yet the unemployment rate could drop. Or it could rise. Or it could stay the same. In other words, it might not really tell us anything at all. Sigh.

How we reached this point is puzzling. It seems like we should simply count every living soul who would like to have a job, compare them to how many people actually have jobs, and Bob’s-your-uncle that’s the number that tells us something. I suspect what happened is that sometime, long ago, some political faction (Democratic? Republican? Bull Moose Party?) wanted to massage the numbers to look better. So they started saying things like, “You know, we really shouldn’t count old Carl over there as unemployed, because you know he stopped looking for work last week.” Never mind that old Carl quit because after 18 months of filling out applications, he decided there were just no jobs to be had; he would no longer be considered unemployed.

And I guess it just snowballed from there. And here we are.

I don’t know if you can, or even want to, do anything about this; but if you could I’d sure appreciate it. If we could just have a monthly report of precisely how many people are out of work but would like to have a job, I think we’d all be better off. It wouldn’t solve our problems, but it would at least let us understand their size a bit better.

I’m heading home for the weekend. Trust you have some nice plans. We’ll probably be putting up Christmas lights, so if you want to stop over and help I won’t say no.



Post by:
Filed under: Letters to the President • Opinion • President Barack Obama • T1 • Tom Foreman
soundoff (One Response)
  1. Bonnie Ponciano

    Give the president a break. He is doing the best that he can. He inherited a big mess and it is just one of those things that take time. Usually five or more years.

    December 2, 2011 at 8:28 pm |

Post a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.