Watch Your Units

When I took chemistry, both in high school and in college, a common warning from the professors was to ‘watch your units.’ Make sure that you tracked if the equations were in milligrams or whatnot and not lose track of those units, because mixing up units produced wildly erroneous results.

This is good advice in general. Always make sure that you are measure by the same methods and units otherwise you can’t compare things. A good example is unemployment.

Do you know what I have not heard from conservative talking heads and friends throughout the year of 2017? Labor Force Participation.

During the final years of the Obama administration, as unemployment fell, it was a quite common rebuttal from advocates on the right that that the raw unemployment figures were not the ‘true’ story and that one had to look at the terrible labor force participation, the percentage of the adult population that took part in wage labor to see that the Obama policies were actual failures covered-up by the falling unemployment figure.

Over the last year the Labor Force Participation rate has remained basically at the same level as it was during the last year of Obama’s presidency. Since now those on the right want to crow about a good economy they have changed out measuring sticks, throwing aside their former ‘truths.’

By the way this is in no way a fault that lies purely on the right. During the tail of Bush II’s administration I heard quite about ‘underemployment’ as the ‘true’ measure of the economy, and argument that vanished with the election of a Democratic president.

What’s really sad is how often these partisans will honestly forget that they ever used a different measure. With a new situation they’ll abandon their old certain truths for new certain truth that support their current position. This human failing is one of the great weaknesses in democracy, people rarely operate by purely rational means and that puts us at the whim of emotion, tribalism, and popularity.

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One thought on “Watch Your Units”

  1. No surprise about partisan hypocrisy on the unemployment numbers.

    Another partisan hypocrisy has been use of the stock market numbers. Plenty of Obama supporters would point to the stock market as an indication of economic health. You don’t hear much from them today, now that a Republican is President and the stock market has skyrocketed.

    Both of those indicators are problematic as a measure of economic health. I imagine this is why partisans prefer to use those numbers as convenient cudgels.

    When actual wages start going up significantly, then we will know the true unemployment situation has improved.

    I’m keeping my eye on GDP growth as a more accurate indication of overall economic health. Post 2008 it averaged about 2.25% per year, which are pretty awful numbers historically when coming out of a deep recession.

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