This is Not a Boring Piece About Numbers


A question asked (and half answered) at yesterday’s press briefing raises an important point about accountability. NPR’s Mara Liasson asked Press Secretary Sean Spicer what the current unemployment rate is. Spicer began to answer pointing to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) but caught himself and in the end refused to answer the question or endorse the BLS number.

The Huffington Post caught the question and the waffling answer and wrote about the danger it represents. With Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” apparently more than a slip of the tongue and Spicer  contending that the administration can “disagree with the facts,” a significant challenge we will face in holding Donald Trump accountable will be agreeing on numbers.

Trump has promised to reduce the deficit while reducing taxes and increasing spending on infrastructure – which seems by all accounts impossible. However, if he simply erases a zero or two on the deficit he may actually be able to do it.

There are legitimate questions about how to accurately measure unemployment or the economic impact of tax cuts. Both progressives and conservatives have economists and lobbyists who are highly skilled at using certain baseline assumptions to drive the numbers they want. However, there has been longstanding agreement from both parties on many numbers issued by government agencies over the decades and attempts to influence these numbers has, in the past, elicited quick condemnation from the Press and government watchdog groups.

The number of people attending the inauguration is not a particularly important number (to most Americans). The number of unemployed, uninsured, the murder rate, or the number of immigrants deported are important numbers. Calling Donald Trump, Kellyanne Conway, and Sean Spicer out on the inauguration crowd size is important because we can’t allow a pattern of baseless, flattering metrics to pour from the White House unchallenged.

Every number Donald Trump, Sean Spicer, or any other administration representative issues, should be held up to the light and thoroughly vetted. Slogging through numbers is not everyone’s idea of fun, but, as Jack Shafer argued in a piece published in Politico yesterday, we don’t need extraordinary journalistic measures, we just need to get to work.