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Target Fixation?

2:04 PM, May 4, 2012 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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You could almost feel the tension in the digital universe this morning, prior to 8:30 EST, at which time the Bureau or Labor Statistics would be releasing the employment number for April. The suspense—oh, the excruciating suspense! Would the number for new hires match expectations? Would the overall number of unemployed drift downward again toward what has lately become the magic threshold number of 8.0 percent?  Would the White House find, in the numbers, another ball to spike? Would the twitterverse move on from its obsession with the perils of Julia? 

Would someone give us all a break?

The numbers are, of course, important. And they did not represent good news for the president. The most telling datum in the mix of statistics was the one about how some half-a-million people quit looking for work. That number sanitizes a kind of demoralization that is cancerous. Americans sustain themselves on optimism and work. To quit working is bad enough. To give up on the possibility ... even worse. But there were other numbers which can be easily spun and the White House will, no doubt, cut and paste from its response to last month's numbers that concluded with this paragraph:

As the Administration stresses every month, the monthly employment and unemployment figures can be volatile, and employment estimates can be subject to substantial revision. Therefore, it is important not to read too much into any one monthly report, and it is helpful to consider each report in the context of other data that are becoming available. 

This morning's numbers, then, will be expertly spun and the fact that the big number actually did get closer to 8 will be helpful for those, like David Axelrod, whose mission is to make chicken soup out of chicken poop.

Politico, of course, runs a headline for which the most charitable modifier is "misleading." 

Unemployment down slightly in April

And down in the body of the story, go-to guy Mark Zandi of Moody's Analytics, carries the administration's water, saying:

the less than stellar jobs report was a natural response to the outsized employment increases caused by an unseasonably warm winter, with the weather causing businesses to hire earlier than normal.

Zandi told CNBC the economy should be back on track with 175,000-200,000 new jobs each month by summer.

“This is all technical and temporary,” he said. “It’s weather payback.”

Focusing on this number, or any other, makes one vulnerable to a political version of target fixation, which is what happens when you lock your eyes on where you do not want to go and, therefore, go precisely to that place. (As in this video.) If the big unemployment number should fall below 8 percent before November, can the president and his team claim success and win reelection?  Well, if the opposition has made that number the sine qua non of the election, then ... yes.  

There are a lot of numbers within that number that tell a harsher story. Youth unemployment, for instance. Underemployment, also. And that really depressing population of people who have quit even looking for work.  

We don't need the Bureau of Labor Statistics to tell us that these are dismal economic times and that enterprise and initiative are withering. Economic activity begins with voluntary exchange between a buyer and a seller. The present administration is a lot better at inhibiting these kind of exchanges than it is in stimulating them ... as, for example, an EPA administrator who considered it good policy to “crucify” a few random oil drillers to make sure others stayed in line. And there are many, many other examples. The Obamacare legislation is a long, long litany of enforcement measures aimed at keeping people from doing what they might otherwise do out of some misplaced sense of self-interest. The government, under this administration, lusts for more rules, regulations, and taxes almost as much as it craves a number – say 7.9 percent – it can spin as progress.

For Mitt Romney and anyone else who desires a change of administration, it is important to focus not on the number but on the wide open road ahead where there is no reason – none at all – to care obsessively about a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Because everyone will be just too busy. Working.

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