State Journal says job statistics super confusing


We all know anything can happen on the State Journal editorial page, so we were excited to find that — today at least — they were taking up something important in an editorial titledDon’t jump to conclusions on jobs.”  An excellent start. Probably we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about anything, should we. It’s like the sentence, “Don’t take a hammer and hit yourself on the ________.” Fill in the blank. It’s invariably sound advice.

But we see where this is going immediately. There’s been another very poor jobs report, and the Journal doesn’t want it to reflect poorly on the work of Governor Walker. This could be tricky territory for the editorial writers. It’s a topic that could involve reasoning, and this is never the best terrain for them.

In our initial post of August 8, 2011, we laid out (after years of reading) the five types of editorial on offer at the Wisconsin State Journal. We didn’t make it explicit then — but we should have — that the Type 5 (Unintentionally Hilarious or Just Plain Sad) is nothing more than a Type 1 which has gone terribly wrong.

The Type 5 editorial adopts a ludicrous, counterfactual or illogical line of argument which then has the actual, unintended effect of showing that the editorial writers — had they gone to law school — would have become very, very bad lawyers.

We see this play out today. If you haven’t already, you owe it to yourself to read the editorial before continuing here.  It begins by referencing two different measurements — Wisconsin jobs gained/lost and Wisconsin unemployment rate. Then it asks,


Not really. Those were two different things. As policy wonk Ezra Klein noted dryly the other day, two things can go on at once.  Perhaps we could address the editorial board directly for just a moment:

Sometimes it’s helpful to have an example from another area of life. Consider the activities of TheDailyTissue canine newspaper retrieval officer, Q.

Q very much enjoys her tennis ball. She also — when she needs to sleep — very much enjoys lying in her wicker basket. These things are in no way contradictory. They’re not confusing, even when mentioned one right after the other.  It makes no sense to say, ‘What? Which is it then? Does Q like the ball or the basket?’  You see, the mental trick here (and it’s not really a trick) is to imagine that both things might be true. 

The editorial continues directly,

Get used to it. The political spin on jobs and the economy is only going to speed and sharpen as the 2012 election cycle ensues. 

Seems so! In fact, look here at this very editorial, spinning the numbers, albeit not very cleverly.  They continue

Just remember this: The monthly job numbers thrown around for political gain and pain are notoriously mixed, fluid and complicated. 

Well, maybe. But you know what would be great? It would be great if editorial pages would not deliberately create confusion. Politicians are more than happy to carry the load.  For those with the stomach for it, here’s Governor Walker himself back in August speaking with two simpletons at Fox News. (warning: 30-sec. commercial at start). The Governor takes a victory lap after favorable job statistics had come out in July, and he goes on to offer advice to the nation.

Jobs statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics do indeed fluctuate, do undergo revisions, and — like statistics of any kind — are not understood by all of us. But they’re not really a profound mystery either. They’re the best information we’ve got to work with.