(Bloomberg) — President Donald Trump complains regularly about what he calls “fake news.” What’s got some statisticians worried, though, is the risk of doctored economic data coming from the administration itself.
While there are government directives in place to prevent that from happening, the number crunchers worry that the president’s occasionally cavalier comments on the economy and economic statistics, and his apparent disdain for economists in general, could mean trouble ahead.
One month into his presidency, Trump has yet to nominate anyone to the Council of Economic Advisers, established in 1946 to provide presidents with objective economic analysis and advice. Indeed, staffers at the council complain that the White House seems to be giving short shrift to the regular reports they produce on the economy, a person familiar with the matter said on condition of anonymity.
There are rules that “protect the statistics from direct manipulation, but don’t address all my concerns about independence,” Brent Moulton, who retired in December after 32 years at the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, wrote in a Jan. 24 blog post.
“For example, a Cabinet secretary could still order the statistical agency to drop certain statistics or to change methodologies in ways that seem politically expedient,” he added in the piece, titled “Why I’m Concerned About the Independence of U.S. Statistical Agencies.”
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In what may be a sign that is happening, the Wall Street Journal on Sunday reported that the Trump administration is considering changes that would make the U.S. trade deficit look bigger than currently reported. Citing unidentified people involved in the discussions, the newspaper said the new calculations could be presented to Congress, but that it wasn’t clear if they would be included in official government data on the economy.
Trump has repeatedly accused past administrations of failing to protect America’s interests on the trade front. Figures showing larger deficits would serve to buttress that argument and support the president’s calls for retaliatory action against China and other U.S. trading partners.
The fears about data manipulation also arise from the nontraditional approach the Trump administration has taken to interpreting economic data. The president himself has repeatedly cast the “real” unemployment rate as far above the official rate, using figures that incorporate all those of working age who aren’t employed.
“Don’t believe these phony numbers,” Trump told supporters of the jobless rate in early 2016. “The number is probably 28, 29, as high as 35 [percent]. In fact, I even heard recently 42 percent.”
While this captures a broader swath of those without a job than the more well-known 4.8 percent jobless rate, it’s misleading because it includes those who choose to be out of work for reasons including school, parenting, care for a family member, or retirement. In 2015 Trump said the U.S. had 93 million people out of work.
Statistical agency veterans also worry that budget cutbacks could threaten the integrity of the economic data. (Photo: iStock)
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin reinforced the skepticism during his Senate confirmation hearing, stating outright that the “unemployment rate is not real” — a view backed days later by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, in a briefing with reporters.
“My biggest concern right now is about the unemployment statistics, just because the White House has been attacking them, and I know how demoralizing that can be to employees when your statistics are being attacked and when you don’t have anyone at the agency level who can speak up for you and defend you,” Moulton said in a telephone interview last month.