GOP Debate Preview: Is the Unemployment Rate Bogus?

U.S. President Barack Obama heads to the stage to deliver a speech about the economy. Although 2015 was a strong year for U.S. employment, as jobless claims fell, Republican presidential candidates have said that Obama's economic policies don't do enough to grow the economy. Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS

"You're entitled to your own opinion, but you're not entitled to your own facts."

Politicians on both sides of the aisle frequently spout this saying, whether it's in debates, Congressional hearings or speeches. But what happens when numbers mean different things to different people?

When it comes to the federal unemployment rate, Democrats and Republicans disagree over how seriously we should take the numbers. During the economics-focused Fox Business–Wall Street Journal debate Tuesday evening, jobs and unemployment are sure to be a major focus.

Here are the facts: The federal unemployment rate dipped to 5 percent in October. During that month, the economy added more than 270,000 payroll jobs. Wages have also been rising at a higher rate than at any time since the Great Recession of 2008-2009.

The statistics-based blog FiveThirtyEight recently wrote that November's jobs report showed a swelling labor force and increasing pay. The economy looks to be doing pretty well by all the conventional measures, but some GOP candidates say the 5 percent federal figure fails to account for underemployment.

"The unemployment rate is a mirage. They don't count people who have stopped looking for work," New Jersey Governor Chris Christie told CNN's Jake Tapper on Friday. He also cited an "anemic" 1.5 percent economic growth rate as evidence of Barack Obama's limping economy.

Mainstream economists, both liberal and conservative, may differ on how well Obama has managed the economy, but they don't think the numbers are bogus. "Its definitely not a mirage," says Gabriel Chodorow-Reich, an assistant professor of economics at Harvard and former member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers during Obama's first term. "The unemployment rate has been collected the same way over the last 50 years in the U.S."

The Bureau of Labor Statistics also tracks underemployment data; the combined unemployment and underemployment rate is closer to 11 percent by the so-called U-6 measure, which takes into account "marginally attached" workers. But instead of citing those numbers to buttress their arguments, Republicans have framed the debate to bolster populist appeal. Christie said that the 5 percent rate is "cooked up" in Washington, while Trump has suggested that the "actual" unemployment rate might be as high as 42 percent.

It's a simple debate strategy, and both sides use it. If your opponent is in power, attack their methodology. But behind the rhetoric, the two parties do actually have differing views of what constitutes a sound labor economy. Many conservatives believe that in a healthy economy, fewer people would be underemployed. The reason: Right-leaning thinkers tend to look at the economy in terms of productivity, while liberals tend to view it in terms of equality. Democrats' rhetoric focuses on improving quality of life through government policy—whether through assuring federal benefits or a higher minimum wage. Republicans' rhetoric focuses on improving economic opportunities by creating more jobs—which many say can be done by lowering taxes and cutting red tape.

Economists say it's unclear if the current rates are historically high, because the increasing number of retirees from the baby boomer generation skews the figures upward. But debate viewers should beware of sound bites in place of arguments. During Christie's interview with Tapper, he jumped immediately to anecdotal evidence in order to make his point about the health of the economy. "I'll tell you, I spoke to a woman this week up here in New Hampshire, where I said, what's the biggest issue to you? And she said to me, every month, when my bills come in, I'm filled with anxiety that I'm not going to have enough money to pay them," Christie said. "That's what's going on in real America, Jake, not in the Frances Perkins Building and the Labor Department in Washington, D.C., where they cook up these numbers."

Christie's rhetoric smacks of the anti-establishment flavor many voters are looking for this election season. TV viewers like it when a candidate seems to be in touch with their problems, rather than faceless statistics. But the New Jersey governor's argument says nothing about the economy in general.

Republicans and Democrats have big economic plans and very different economic philosophies. If the moderators can steer the candidates toward questions that reveal how much they actually understand employment, perhaps viewers will hear more than a series of attacks on numbers.