Here's how to Welch-proof the jobs number in two easy steps
Jack Welch needs our help. The former CEO of GE has had a hard time understanding the September jobs report. Torn between the competing hypotheses that falling unemployment was a case of mean reversion or a shadowy conspiracy on the part of career civil servants, Welch has chosen the latter. Because ... Occam's Razor? Of course, this isn't to say we can't make the jobs number more accurate. We can. Here's how to Welch-proof it in two easy steps.
First, a big caveat. There's no need to Welch-proof the jobs number. House Oversight Chair Darrell Issa is concerned that the "constant revisions -- significant revisions -- tell us that it's not as exact a science as it needs to be," but the reality is the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) already does a pretty magnificent job. As University of Michigan professor and former Labor Department chief economist Betsey Stevenson told me, it's important to think in terms of changes to the level and not just revisions to the change. In other words, the revisions sound big because we compare them to the initial change, but they aren't big compared to the 143 million people currently working. They're a rounding error.
But they're a rounding error we could eliminate. It's just a question of how much we're willing to pay. Right now the BLS gets its job numbers from a pair of polls, one of establishment businesses and the other of households. The first, and easiest, way to increase accuracy would be to increase the survey size and increase the number of questions -- that is, reduce the margin of error.
This is straightforward enough, but we can do better still. Justin Wolfers, a professor at the University of Michigan and Betsey Stevenson's husband, points out that the establishment data actually comes from two sources. There's the monthly poll, and the annual benchmark revision -- the latter of which looks at so-called "universe counts" of who has paid into unemployment insurance over the previous quarter. In other words, it's a very precise measurement of employment rather than a very precise poll of employment. What kind of difference are we talking about here? Well, in the year ending in March 2012, the benchmark revision found 386,000 more jobs than the establishment poll had found. That's not nothing.
Obvious question time: If the benchmark data is better than the establishment survey data, why don't we just use the benchmark data? The answer is one part infrastructure and another part convenience. The crazy thing is every state has a record of how many jobs there are, but we can't get to the records fast enough. The data are stuck on different, sometimes antiquated, computer systems, and only come in every three months. We could revolutionize how we calculate the jobs number if we harmonized these computer systems across all 50 states and required businesses to file unemployment insurance payments every month instead of every quarter. It would become an administrative, rather than a statistical, task, as Justin Wolfers put it to me.
There is, of course, a rather large irony here. The Republicans are effectively attacking the BLS for not being invasive enough when last year they attacked the American Community Survey (ACS) for being too invasive. The ACS is one of those boring but essential government functions that policymakers and business leaders alike can't do without -- it's an annual survey of three million households that covers everything from demographics, internet usage to how often they flush the toilet. Despite its 200-year history, House Republicans decided the ACS was unconstitutional, if not worthless since the surveys are "random" and "not scientific". (Pro tip: The randomness makes it scientific).
So does this brouhaha over the BLS mean conservatives care more about increasing jobs accuracy than about increasing the regulatory burden on businesses? I'm just asking questions.
In 1985, Neil Postman observed an America imprisoned by its own need for amusement. He was, it turns out, extremely prescient.
Earlier this month, thousands of protesters gathered at Washington’s National Mall to advocate for an assortment of causes: action against global climate change, federal funding for scientific research, an empirical approach to the world and its mysteries. The protesters at the March for Science, as scientists are wont to do, followed what has become one of the formulas for such an event, holding clever signs, wearing cheeky costumes, and attempting, in general, to carnivalize their anger. “Make the Barrier Reef Great Again,” read one sign at the March. “This is my sine,” read another. “I KNEW TO WEAR THIS,” one woman had written on the poncho she wore that soggy Saturday, “BECAUSE SCIENCE PREDICTED THE RAIN.” Three protesters, sporting sensible footwear and matching Tyrannosaurus rex costumes, waved poster boards bearing messages like “Jurassick of this shit.”
Recent border battles have once again redrawn the lines of the metro area.
On the Saturday before Election Day last November, Jason Lary, a former insurance executive, crouched on a rough patch of grass at the center of a busy intersection 20 miles outside of Atlanta in DeKalb County. Lary was holding a hammer, and he tapped carefully on the thin wire base of a campaign sign. “My hand is like Fred Flintstone’s right now because I banged my hand in the night,” he said, noting his latest sign-related injury. This hazard, though, was worthwhile: “If you don’t start [the sign] with your hand, it will bend. It takes longer—guys are 10 times faster than I am. But my sign’s still gonna be up.”
This was a non-trivial advantage for Lary, who for the past month had begun most mornings with a kind of ground-game whack-a-mole. He would put up signs under the cover of night, only to have his opponents dislodge them by hand or, when that failed, run over them with their cars. Nevertheless, Lary was feeling good. “My opposition? Worn down,” he told me. “They don’t even have any more signs. And I kept a stash, knowing this time was coming. This is not my first picnic with nonsense.”
In the party’s bid to regain power, centrists and Bernie Sanders’s allies offer seemingly incompatible strategies—that target wildly different voters.
The distinctive pattern of public reaction to President Trump as he approaches the end of his first 100 days in office is sharpening the choices facing Democrats over the party’s road to recovery.
Though Trump’s agenda has unified Democrats in near-term opposition, clear fault lines have quickly emerged about the party’s long-term strategy to regain power. On one side are those—largely affiliated with Senator Bernie Sanders—arguing for a biting message of economic populism, which is intended largely to recapture working-class white voters that stampeded to Trump in 2016. On the other are party strategists who want Democrats to offer a more centrist economic message, aimed primarily at reassuring white-collar suburbanites drawn to the party mostly around cultural issues.
Who wins (the rich), who loses (anybody who doesn’t like deficits), and why it might take a miracle for the plan to become a law
There are two compelling narratives around President Donald Trump’s first 100 days. The first is his transformation from heterodox populist to orthodox Republican. Although he ran as a mold-breaking renegade, his economic policies come straight out of the conservative mold, from cutting business regulations to backing off threats to label China a currency manipulator and supporting plans to reduce health-insurance coverage for the poor.
The second story is that Trump has been more focused on optimizing for his own income and branding than for political victories. He has visited no foreign leaders, passed no major laws, given no major political addresses, and disappeared as the GOP effort to repeal Obamacare failed, all while doing little to refute accusations that he’s using the office to raise membership revenue at Mar-a-Lago and mixing business and politics in ways that are unprecedented for a sitting president.
Activists threatened to drag local Republicans off a parade route if they weren’t excluded from a local celebration. Organizers cancelled the entire event in response.
On the day after Donald Trump was inaugurated, perhaps 3 million Americans took to the streets in peaceful protest to register their opposition. When news of his travel ban broke, I stood at LAX watching Angelenos sing the Star Spangled Banner and Amazing Grace. Across the nation, peaceful protest against President Trump continues. But a violent fringe has been using Trump’s rise as a justification for political violence, as if his authoritarian impulses justify authoritarianism from his opponents.
This tiny faction knows that most of their compatriots on the left are committed to nonviolence, so they frame their aggressive actions as a narrow exception to the rule.
Most famously, they insisted that it was okay, or even righteous, to punch white supremacist Richard Spencer because he was “a Nazi.” That position impels the debate down a slippery slope. And now, activists in Oregon caused the cancellation of the 82nd Avenue of Roses Parade, a community event in the southeast quadrant of Portland, by threatening to forcibly drag “fascists” off the parade route if they weren’t excluded.
“Somewhere at Google there is a database containing 25 million books and nobody is allowed to read them.”
You were going to get one-click access to the full text of nearly every book that’s ever been published. Books still in print you’d have to pay for, but everything else—a collection slated to grow larger than the holdings at the Library of Congress, Harvard, the University of Michigan, at any of the great national libraries of Europe—would have been available for free at terminals that were going to be placed in every local library that wanted one.
At the terminal you were going to be able to search tens of millions of books and read every page of any book you found. You’d be able to highlight passages and make annotations and share them; for the first time, you’d be able to pinpoint an idea somewhere inside the vastness of the printed record, and send somebody straight to it with a link. Books would become as instantly available, searchable, copy-pasteable—as alive in the digital world—as web pages.
Will you pay more for those shoes before 7 p.m.? Would the price tag be different if you lived in the suburbs? Standard prices and simple discounts are giving way to far more exotic strategies, designed to extract every last dollar from the consumer.
As Christmas approached in 2015, the price of pumpkin-pie spice went wild. It didn’t soar, as an economics textbook might suggest. Nor did it crash. It just started vibrating between two quantum states. Amazon’s price for a one-ounce jar was either $4.49 or $8.99, depending on when you looked. Nearly a year later, as Thanksgiving 2016 approached, the price again began whipsawing between two different points, this time $3.36 and $4.69.
We live in the age of the variable airfare, the surge-priced ride, the pay-what-you-want Radiohead album, and other novel price developments. But what was this? Some weird computer glitch? More like a deliberate glitch, it seems. “It’s most likely a strategy to get more data and test the right price,” Guru Hariharan explained, after I had sketched the pattern on a whiteboard.
Ulrich Baer’s op-ed in The New York Times is the latest challenge to liberal speech norms that fails to withstand close scrutiny.
Earlier this week, Ulrich Baer, a vice provost at New York University, published an op-ed in The New York Timesdefending student-activist efforts to shut down speakers at institutions of higher education like Auburn, UC Berkeley, and Middlebury. He urged readers inclined to defend liberal norms on matters of speech to adopt “a more sophisticated understanding” and argued that “the parameters of public speech must be continually redrawn to accommodate those who previously had no standing.”
Were there “parameters of speech” at Berkeley 10 or 15 years ago that denied standing to students who have it today? What were the parameters? Who are the students?
The op-ed is elusive throughout in a manner typical of university administrators with censorious instincts. Many words are lavished on a questionably relevant anecdote about the Holocaust and the obligatory theory of a postmodern French philosopher. Very few words clarify what speech is to be suppressed by what standards, or who is to decide if they are met, as if we needn’t worry overmuch about limiting principles or the abuses that invariably follow when they are absent—even though marginalized groups typically bear the attendant burdens most heavily.
The author of a new book explains the science behind the cringeworthy feeling—and how to overcome it.
It’s when a fist bump unwittingly meets a high-five. It’s when Ben Carson tries, unsuccessfully, to walk onto a stage. It’s trying to introduce an acquaintance to someone else at a party and then realizing you don’t actually remember their name. It’s awkward, and like so many other things, you know it when you see it.
We all experience awkwardness, of course, but some people seem chronically susceptible to it. In his new book, the appropriately titled Awkward, the writer and psychologist Ty Tashiro explores why certain people seem more prone to these cringe-inducing moments, and what they can do about it. I recently interviewed Tashiro; an edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Olga Khazan: Do you consider yourself awkward? What are some of the awkward things you do or used to do?
The most comprehensive review of evidence on health consequences of caffeine use has just been published.
That’s what a Los Angeles news anchor said earlier this month, in response to the announcement that “the world’s strongest coffee” is now available in the United States. The product is called Black Insomnia, a playful nod to apotentially debilitating medical condition that can be caused by the product.
The anchor’s tone took a dramatic decrescendo as she read from the teleprompter: “The site Caffeine Informer says Black Insomnia is one of the ‘most dangerous caffeinated products.’” Her smile faded. “Oh. I’ll have to have this one sparingly.”
Black Insomnia is actually in competition for the title of “world’s strongest coffee.” Another, similar purveyor sells coffee grounds called Death Wish. They come in a black sack with a skull and cross bones. On its Amazon page, Death Wish claims to be “the world’s strongest coffee” and promises its “perfect dark roast will make you the hero of the house or office.”