On the first Friday of each month the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the federal government publishes the figures for payroll employment and the unemployment rate for the month immediately preceding.
These figures are undoubtedly the most closely watched numbers by both the media and the general public. The direction of the economy and the fortunes of our political class are in large part determined by this news release: Are things getting better or worse, and if worse, who is responsible to do something to remedy the situation?
Unfortunately there is much room for confusion in the focusing of attention on these two particular figures, because they are calculated by two completely different methodologies.
The payroll employment figures for September 2012, showing an increase of 114,000 jobs, does not in any way shape or form match up with the reported drop in the unemployment rate from 8.1 percent down to 7.8 percent.
It turns out that the number of employed persons, which by the way includes the self-employed according to the statistics bureau, is arrived at by contacting approximately 150,000 private businesses, non-profits and governmental entities and asking them how many people do they have employed as of a certain day in the month and how does that figure compare with their payroll on the same day in the prior month.
But the unemployment rate is derived from a survey of about 60,000 households, asking the respondents whether or not they are working, and if so, part-time or full time.
From these two surveys the statisticians extrapolate out to the whole country and even adjust the figures for what are termed "seasonal variations."
In other words, an employment universe of statistical fog, the contours of which are discernible only to the initiated.
For example, the total civilian labor force, as defined, is about 155 million people. One does not need to be a math genius to see immediately that an increase in payroll employment of only 114,000 could not possibly translate into a .3 percent drop in the overall rate of unemployment. The figure would have to be more in the range of 465,000. In fact, the labor figures show an increase in the number of employed for September of 873,000!
This phenomenal figure can only be derived by extrapolation from the household survey, not the business survey, which came in at "only" 114,000.
On top of that, the Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show that the number of part-time workers for economic reasons, that is, not enough work to do full time or the only job available, increased in September by 582,000, to a total of 8,613,000, obviously not a healthy trend.
And then there are always the "adjustments" for these figures in the months following as more complete data is absorbed into the calculations.
So, where does this leave us? As someone said recently, "If I'm unemployed, the unemployment rate is 100 percent."
I would suggest that we take the figures released with a much larger grain of salt, rather than with the headline-screaming notoriety currently being given them, not to mention the political spin by spokespersons on both sides of the political aisle.
I recall that some years back, during the previous administration, the bureau issued what they called an annual revision in the figures for the prior year, and it was something like 800,000 people.
But, arguably, if the methodologies employed by the bureau are utilized on a consistent basis they can probably indicate fairly accurately some general trends.
But I would also suggest, with great intensity, that we pay much more attention to the utter disaster of our educational system, which has managed, after spending literally trillions of our tax dollars over the years, to mismatch our young people with the skills necessary to function in the contemporary world economy.
It's not funny anymore, this misallocation of vast resources.
The bureau also reports that there are approximately 3.6 million job vacancies in the economy at the present time, while we fuss and fret about all the unemployed and underemployed and discouraged workers.
I thought we Americans were supposed to be pragmatic, asking always: Does it work? Something is seriously not working.
This is one of an occasional column by Mark B. Packer, a Bellingham attorney and former planning commissioner who has led a book discussion group called "Heavy Culture in Bellingham" for the past 22 years.
The number of years Packer has led "Heavy Culture" was corrected Nov. 9, 2012.