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Make of This What You Will

This morning, National Public Radio’s Steve Inskeep interviewed the current Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, Jared Bernstein. Naturally, political appointees are political cheerleaders for their party, so I wasn’t a bit surprised by Bernstein’s happy talk about the alleged wonders of Bidenomics (which isn’t to say that this talk wasn’t annoying, as is all such propaganda, regardless of the party spewing it).

What did surprise me, however, was Inskeep catching Bernstein spreading false information and calling him out on it. (The most-relevant part occurs from about the two-minutes-fifteen-seconds mark until just after the four-minute mark.) Inskeep said that, while labor-force participation is now rising, it still hasn’t fully recovered. Bernstein then contradicted Inskeep, saying that “labor-force participation of working-age people” has indeed recovered to its level of 15 years ago. Inskeep countered that he – Inskeep – is looking at data from the St. Louis Fed that shows that the labor-force participation rate is several percentage points lower than it was 15 years ago. (Inskeep prefaced his remark with “I don’t want to argue with an economist about statistics, but….”)

Bernstein – unable to deny the truth of Inskeep’s point – then rather haughtily said that he “wanted to avoid going into the weeds,” but, darnit, Inskeep forced him to do so. Bernstein explained that the labor-force participation rate that he is talking about is of adults ages 25-54. (I suppose that Bernstein and other Bidenomisists do not regard 23-year-olds and 55-year-olds as “working-age people.”) The labor-force participation rate to which Inskeep referred was the conventional one of people 16 years and older. Bernstein justified his use of this cropped portion of the labor force as a means – given our aging population – of excluding retirees. This justification perhaps sounds reasonable to someone unfamiliar with the definition of “labor force,” but because as the labor force is defined it already excludes retirees, Bernstein’s attempt to weasel out of being caught telling what is essentially a lie fails.

As I listened I kept hoping that Inskeep would make this latter point, but he didn’t.

Another point that I hoped Inskeep would make but that he also did not is that, while Bernstein’s cropped “labor force” of course excludes people of retirement age, it excludes also people ages 16-24. What about them?

Nevertheless, I remain grateful that Inskeep didn’t let Bernstein get away with conveying the false impression that the labor-force participation of all Americans 16 and older is back to its height of 15 or so years ago. (By the way, this rate’s all-time high was reached in January 1999, when it hit 84.6 percent – or 1.2 percentage points higher than the current [May 2023] rate of 83.4 percent).

(And FYI, any NPR listener who took Inskeep’s description of Bernstein to imply that Bernstein has a degree or degrees in economics is mistaken.)

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