The Things People Say: Rhetorical Devices and the Abuse of Statistics

Word Salad

Munch's The ScreamLet’s write a reality check.

Not all that long ago I repeatedly heard that the unemployment rate in the US was not 4.9 percent as official numbers stated, but closer to 42 percent. This intel came from news sources trusted by a great number of Americans, from pundits and political operatives to a moderator at  a political debate.

Here’s the way the debate moderator (surely a misnomer) put it: “…almost 40 percent of Americans are without a job and are not looking. Many have given up. That’s what the participation rate tells us.”

Here’s the way a presidential candidate put it a while back—as you can tell by the government numbers given: “We have a real unemployment rate that’s probably 21%. It’s not 6. It’s not 5.2 and 5.5. Our real unemployment rate–in fact, I saw a chart the other day, our real unemployment–because you have ninety million people that aren’t working. Ninety-three million to be exact. If you start adding it up, our real unemployment rate is 42%.” (emphasis mine)

Did you notice how the number doubled in a single paragraph, or how the word “real” was repeated four times to drive home the point? Those are called rhetorical devices and … well, that’s a different blog.

These incendiary statements not only exaggerate the jobless rate and create the false impression that the economy is worse off than it actually is, but also imply that the institution generating those numbers is lying, thus fostering mistrust. If this is unethical in political functionaries, it it is completely unacceptable from media in a democratic republic that rises or falls on how well-informed its electorate is or is not.

The facts are these: The unemployment rate counts only people who are 1) unemployed but do not want to be and 2) who are actively looking for work. It has only ever counted  those people, no matter who was president or what party was in power. It has only ever counted those people when it was 24% during the Great Depression and when it was as high as 12% during the Great Recession.

There is another number that also counts the underemployed—those who are working part time but would rather be working full-time. That number stands at 9.7%

The bogus figures define as “unemployed” Americans of working age who are not holding down a full time job either working for someone else or in a non-freelance self-owned business. It does not take into account why these people are not working.

Employment numbers chartWhy is that important?

Because it counts people who are not working because they can’t work, don’t want to work, shouldn’t work, or are happily freelancing, like yours truly.

Wall Street Journal article from the time sums up these facts in one nice, clear graph.

By the bogus definition of unemployed, I’m unemployed and have ‘given up’ seeking employment, though I have worked full time as a freelance writer and editor for over a decade. My friend Seanan McGuire and many writers like her are unemployed by that definition, though they are making a living from their craft and neither need nor want a full-time job working for someone else. Like many others, Seanan left a full time job when she was finally able to get healthcare through the ACA, so that she could concentrate on what she really wanted to do. My 80-something mother-in-law and seniors like her are unemployed by that definition and counted in that 42%. Disabled veterans are counted in that 42%. My college-age daughter and every other working-age student are counted in that 42%.

The moderator above framed her statement in such a way that she had plausible deniability—she opens by seeming to talk about the unemployment rate (or participation rate), but gives a number that is tabulating something else. This is a semantical dodge that is calculated to mislead. Her statement and the statements of other media personages, pundits, and politicos passed without pushback at the time they were said. Yes, fact-checking organizations had a field day, but the folks who are watching those media outlets and listening to those p-word people are not going to fact-checking sites to ascertain the accuracy of what they hear.

For the love of God, Montressor, please do check. Do the math, source the commentary, and understand what those numbers really mean.

Sign me, one of the Forty-two Percent.

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