Can you trust the jobs numbers under Trump?
This, unfortunately, needs to be asked
The first jobs report of Donald Trump's presidency is perfectly respectable. January saw the creation of 227,000 new jobs, and the unemployment rate barely budged, ticking up just slightly to 4.8 percent. Even if the report can mostly be chalked up to former President Barack Obama's economic stewardship, it still makes his successor look good.
But what happen if the jobs report ever delivers unflattering data during the Trump administration?
If there's one thing we've learned about President Trump, it's that he doesn't like being associated with small numbers. He's already feuded with the media over the size of his inaugural crowds, and even pressured the National Park Service to find photos proving his turnout was bigger than Obama's.
And we also know that he routinely questioned jobs reports in the past. When the numbers during the 2012 election looked good for Obama — and thus bad for the GOP — a bunch of Republican firebrands and right-wing personalities, including Trump, openly accused the government of fudging the data. "[C]ensus workers cooked the job numbers for Obama right before the election," Trump tweeted in 2013. And on the 2016 campaign trail, Trump also regularly impugned the credibility of the jobs reports, claiming the "real" unemployment rate was 28, 29, 35, or even 42 percent.
So, now that he's president, is the integrity of the Bureau of Labor Statistics in question? Could Trump cook the books?
First, it's worth noting that even though Trump's alternative numbers on the campaign trail are absurdly high for a number of reasons, the official U-3 unemployment rate does paint an overly rosy picture of the economy. But that doesn't mean the BLS is messing with the data. We only know there are better metrics — like the U-6 unemployment rate, the labor force participation rate, and the prime age employment-to-population ratio — because the BLS reliably and transparently provides the data.
Now for the bad news: There's certainly historical precedent for a president bullying the BLS because they're unhappy with its data. Nixon famously demoted at least three BLS officials and replaced them with GOP loyalists. The president went so far as to task his personnel chief, Frederic Malek, with compiling a list of BLS employees who were either registered as Democrats — or who were Jewish. (To ascertain that latter criterion, Malek was reduced to looking for who had Jewish-sounding last names.) Thanks to extensive recordings of the banter in the Nixon White House, we know the president was an anti-Semitic paranoiac convinced a "Jewish cabal" was turning the agency against him. "Well, listen, are they all Jews over there [at BLS]?" Nixon asked White House aide Charles Colson at one point in 1971. "Every one of them," Colson replied. "Well, a couple of exceptions."
Nixon: "See my point?" Colson: "You know goddamn well they're out to kill us."
That last detail is unpleasantly relevant to Trump's relationship with the BLS: His chief adviser, Stephen Bannon, used to run a far-right news website that encouraged anti-Semitic conspiracy-mongering among its readership. This sort of fever swamp stuff tends to all run from the same conceptual tributaries.
Now, on to the good news.
As shameful as the Nixon episode was, there's no evidence it actually forced the agency to change the way it handles data or the job reports. And while the recordings didn't surface until later, they hardly pulled off the gambit in secret — it generated plenty of public uproar at the time.
The modern BLS takes the integrity of its data and reports very seriously. The raw data comes in from two different massive surveys — both of which would have to be manipulated to cook the books — eight days before the monthly report is released. During that time period when they compile the reports, the BLS team works in one conference room, uses encrypted computers, and keeps the data in a locked safe. The whole process involves huge numbers of people and layer upon layer of institutional safeguards and physical security. To keep everything on the up-and-up, the BLS even has a list of approved words and descriptors to avoid sensationalism in the reports: You can say numbers "declined," for example, but you would never say they "plummeted."
This is all why the accusations that the Obama administration was cooking the jobs data were absurd. But it's also why the Trump administration would have an equally hard time getting the BLS to fudge its numbers, should they ever be so inclined.
A more plausible worry is that Trump and the GOP might simply defund the agency rather than corrupt or bully it.
In Canada, for example, the conservative government that preceded Justin Trudeau's massively slashed resources to government data-gathering on subjects ranging from the economy to the environment. You can't be embarrassed by jobs numbers if agencies don't have the resources to gather them in the first place.
Trump and the Republicans sound like they're already gearing up to cut funding and staff for all sorts of government agencies. And the Bureau of Labor Statistics' budget is already dangerously stingy as it is.
Everyone — the news media, think tanks, politicians, campaigns, the Federal Reserve, and more — rely on the BLS' data. The integrity of the their numbers, their regular reliable updates, and the historical record they provide make it possible for policymakers to engage in any coherent decision-making at all — and for the rest of us to assess their choices.
A bunch of economist technocrats in an alphabet-soup government agency crunching away at numbers may seem mundane. But the role they play in America's political discourse is so crucial it's almost existential. Better hope Trump leaves them alone.