To use this number as a data point about unemployment is absurd. Most of these 96 million people are retired. Most of the rest are stay-at-home parents and students. To say that 96 million people “want a job and can’t get one” is to argue that a 90-year-old grandfather at a nursing home is struggling to find a suitable job. Is Trump hoping grandpa gets back on his feet and starts realizing his latent labor potential? If not, don’t call him unemployed! If yes, we have deeper issues.
I don’t want to give the impression that unemployment is a cut-and-dry issue just because Trump’s mistake is cut-and-dry. As CNBC's Steve Liesman wrote, the real number is closer to the 5.4 million Americans who say they want a job but aren't working. Liesman is technically right. That is the official figure. But determining the “real” unemployment rate is not like measuring the pressure of a gas in a beaker. It’s a measurement inflected with mutable values and arbitrary definitions.
Imagine a home with one working parent, one stay-at-home parent, and three children between the age of 16 and 21 who are busy attending school. According to Trump, the unemployment rate of this household is 80 percent. According to the government, by contrast, the unemployment rate of the household is zero percent. But there are plenty of people think that’s not quite right either. What if the stay-at-home parent is a father who used to work at an auto factory that was shut down and he only decided to stay home with the kids after unsuccessfully looking for work for 12 months? In this case, he was considered “unemployed” for 12 months. When he stopped looking for work, he fell out of the labor force, which means the government stopped counting him as “unemployed,” even though he’s just as jobless as he was before.
Unemployment is supposed to measure slack—the difference between Americans’ ambition and capacity to work and the work they actually do. Because measuring what people want is always complicated, the government has several ways to measure the unemployment rate. A 55-year-old would prefer to work but he’s taken early retirement and only checks job listings once a year or so. Is he “unemployed”? It’s is a tough question, and reasonable people could disagree. A 17-year-old spends all month studying for her AP finals. Is she “jobless but looking for work”? No, and it’s not very close.
Trump’s gaslighting of the unemployment rate isn’t just an epistemological quandary. The president elect has made it this far by over-dramatizing the scale of America’s problems while under-developing a reasonable plan to fix them. He lambasts inner-cities as post-apocalyptic hell holes for black Americans without bothering to consider the root causes of poverty, racial prejudice, and gun violence. He incites Rust Belt voters to furious resentfulness without a broader plan to help millions of displaced workers adjust to shocks from globalization and technology. He claims that middle America is beset by unemployment and precarity, while the cornerstone of his economic policy is a multi-trillion-dollar tax cut aimed at the richest Americans and corporations, combined with the repeal of a health care law that insures millions of people who belong to that very precariat.