Donald Trump’s first press conference as president-elect will be best-remembered for his jeering at the press and vague dismissals of financial and ethical impropriety. But buried inside the taunting and dissembling was a Trump moment that stands out as a kind of microcosmic footnote—subtle yet representative of his ability to scramble the news cycle with simple falsehoods.
“Right now, there are 96 million [people] wanting a job and they can't get [one],” he said. “You know that story. The real number. That's the real number."
No. That’s not “the real number.”
This is a perfect example of the effect Trump will have on any policy debate he seizes. He takes a fraught yet critical topic—American work, lack of the work, and the way the U.S. government addresses both—reduces it to a bizarro sound bite that bears no relationship to reality, and bends the political and policy conversation toward his dramatic warping of the truth, all without offering a substantive plan to address even the moderate version of his apocalyptic proclamations.
Trump didn’t pull this particular figure out of thin air. There are 96 million Americans over the age of 16 who are not in the labor force. But “not in the labor force” does not mean they want a job and can’t get one. In fact, it means something quite different: that they are neither working nor looking for work.
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.
That’s why this is about more than an unemployment statistic. A free press will be constantly challenged in a political environment where the most powerful individual is indifferent to the provenance of information and disdainful of the very instinct to investigate the veracity of his statements. A press conference is often an opportunity for journalists to catch a politician in a lie under the lights and cameras. But this is Trump. The lights and cameras signal a theatrical performance in which he, the star, can make up whatever lines he wants without shame or accountability.
So, the real work must happen off-stage, in the slow, messy, and uncelebrated process of separating truth from fiction, even in a country where legacy news companies have lost control over the dissemination of information to audiences, and the president himself is indifferent to evidence. And yet, on “the 96 million” and so much else, there is immense value is pointing out again and again that the president elect is simply wrong, wrong, wrong, even if there is no expectation that Trump himself will ever admit it.