The latest unemployment figure is good news right? Well, it's complicated.

Unemployment took an amazing drop just in time for the last leg of the election, but what is reported is just the tip of the iceberg. Photo: (AP Photo)

DOTHAN, AL, October 5, 2012 — The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS for short and yes we’ve noticed that it does almost look like an acronym for a not-so-nice word) announced today that the unemployment rate finally dropped below the magical 8% rate that politicians have been fighting over for months. No doubt adding 100,000 jobs in a nation of 300 million people will be touted as a major economic coup by the Obama Administration, which should be even more thrilled when the six major retailers hire their usual 300,000 seasonal holiday workers soon.

Today’s news will likely be considered bad news by the GOP, which is trying desperately to prove that capitalism creates more jobs than Marxism even if most of those jobs are in India and the Philippines.  

As the saying goes, let’s “give the devil his due” and grant that yes, this is in fact good news for the average voter and congratulations to the Obama loyalists who foam at the mouth like rabid wolves with any shred of news that puts our fearless leader in a positive light. It also means the liberal media can go off suicide watch after the president came across like a stoner with a new stash of Panama Red at the recent presidential debate. Former Vice President Al Gore seemed to think the president’s performance was due to Denver’s thin air, which is very unlike the thick, aromatic atmosphere of Washington, D.C.

Before anyone gets too high or too low over today’s labor statistics, there are a few things everyone should be aware of. First, to dispel a myth that many people have, the BLS does not compile actual hard statistics on labor. It has no more idea how many actual, living, breathing people are working or not working than my neighbor Darryl, who proudly claims he hasn’t read a newspaper since 1975. 

So where do these numbers come from? From a statistical sampling of a statistically selected group of people in a statistically selected but undisclosed geographic region that statistically represents all statistics in the entire United States, statistically speaking.

In other words, it’s a poll with a margin of error of one to three percentage points. That means that the labor figure might be as high as 8.1% or as low as 7.5%. Desperate Republicans will of course prefer the former number while desperate Democrats will rally around the latter. Actual, real people still desperate for actual real work will throw up their hands and go back to bed.

The BLS also compiles tons of other statistics. If you dig a bit, the way reporters used to before they became media personalities, you can find out interesting stuff like the fact that a third of the unemployed have been out of work 52 weeks or longer, or that nearly half the total are age 55 and over, or that the median weekly earnings for people who are working is $756 or just over $39,000 per year assuming paid vacation time.

I’m won’t try to spin this or speculate what it says about the state of the American economy, but it certainly does seem that all our politicians are making some huge assumptions about who we really are and what we can afford.

I’d like to think that whoever is being polled for this data is being honest, though based on some past experience I’ve had with polling I have to say that my confidence level for accurate responses is not high. First off, a great many of the unemployed are the former middle class that Vice President Biden admitted have been “hammered” over the past few years. Who to blame is not as important as who’s going to fix the problem, but people who are now “on the dole,” or who are unemployable for some reason, still feel there is a stigma about not working.

Despite what Mr. O’Reilly at Fox News would have us believe, these people are not having a great time and many are embarrassed about needing the system to survive. As a result, the formerly secure and successful often have a tendency to play down or even hide their real situation both from embarrassment and because they still feel personal responsibility for their own situations. Pride and dignity, often all some people have left, tend to skew public opinion polls.

If we have to draw conclusions about all this, what are they? Making conclusions is really something voters should do for themselves because an informed electorate scares politicians in both parties. If President Obama wants to claim that a blip of a hundred thousand new jobs of undetermined quality represents major economic growth then he will have to live with that if he is re-elected. If Governor Romney wants to claim that growth only comes through new jobs, if elected he needs to get his corporate friends to stop outsourcing and start investing in infrastructure.

Last but not least, if you want to keep politicians in check get out and vote. Your voice really does still count, statistically speaking. 

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Rick Townley

Rick Townley was a bookseller before switching to electronic publishing with The New York Times, Reuters, Grolier and others. He is the author of a humor book, For Boomers Only – Exploring Life in the New Millennium, a supernatural novel, Stepping Out of Time, and numerous short stories. In addition to contributing to the Washington Times Communities, Rick is working on a fiction series called Stigma and resides in southern Alabama with his 7-year-old granddaughter, Chloe.


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