If you ask John Bregger of Tacoma, any suggestion that federal employees manipulated monthly national unemployment data is not just wrong, it’s offensive.
Bregger has more than a passing interest. He spent more than 30 years working for the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, supervising the collection and analysis of that data every month, under both Democrat and Republican administrations.
“This is how the numbers are. There is no manipulation. I can’t say that more clearly,” he said Friday in an interview with The News Tribune.
Bregger, 76, contacted the newspaper after witnessing the political uproar that ensued after the monthly jobless report showed the national unemployment rate dropped to 7.8 percent. At any time other than during a heated presidential race, that would be called unqualified good news. But because the announcement came just weeks away from an election in which both parties say their candidate has a better prescription for economic growth, reaction was mixed.
Some of President Barack Obama’s critics, including former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, said the information was manipulated in the incumbent’s favor.
Breggar, who retired as assistant commissioner in 1995 from the BLS after 38 years of federal service, said such accusations are reckless.
“When I was there, we were proud of what we did,” he said. “It was important. We all believed in it. And it was important that we did it right. And many of the people I hired are still there doing it right, and it’s a massive insult to us to think that we would do anything incorrectly with respect to those statistics and analysis. It’s too important in the scheme of things.”
Here’s more from Breggar, in a Q&A format that has been edited and condensed.
How do we know you know what you’re talking about?
I was the assistant commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Until 1995 I was in charge of analysis and issuance of the nation’s unemployment reports. Since I retired, I’ve done a lot of international consulting with other countries on their measures of employment and unemployment. I’ve maintained a complete and total interest in the statistics and the way they’re done.
What do you make of the reaction to the latest numbers?
It wouldn’t have happened if the rate hadn’t gone below 8 percent. That has become a magic number. The party that’s not in power somehow thinks that Obama and anyone who works for him has somehow caused the numbers to look good in his favor. Nothing could be further from the truth. I was directly involved in calculations and estimations for 35 years. No one has said anything all along about how the numbers are collected until right now. And that’s because they didn’t like the results.
How are the statistics gathered?
Two surveys produce the monthly report. For the unemployment rate and the data on the labor force, the Census Bureau collects a sample of 60,000 households every month. It’s a large sample. You think of these polls that everyone is paying attention to, and that might be of 500 individuals. This is about 120,000 people interviewed directly, by phone or in person, on the employment status of everyone in a house over the age of 16.
This is a tight three-week process. In the first week, the data is collected. The second week is processing. Then at the beginning of the third week, the data is turned over to the BLS. They put tables together, analyze figures, prepare necessary press releases and statements, clear all of that on Thursday, and on Friday, usually the first Friday of the month, the numbers come out. The data is available to anybody.
The other survey is the payroll survey. This is data directly from payroll records of firms. It includes everyone who is non-agricultural industries. Each month the survey goes to about 141,000 businesses and government agencies representing 486,000 individual work sites. Not all establishments report initially. So you put out the data you have, and then the next month you revise.
I can’t begin to tell you how many people at the Census Bureau are involved. At the BLS itself, it’s about 15 to 20 people, and then you have review levels up to the commissioner. The Secretary of Labor doesn’t know the figures until a half-hour before they’re released.
Do you recall other times that the monthly jobless report was injected with politics?
President Nixon was running for a second term, and the rate slipped a tenth of a point or two, which was within the sampling error. The person who gave the press conference said there was little change. Nixon was enraged because he wanted it to be said that the economy was improving. And the next thing you know, the press conferences were abolished.
What is your response to people who believe the figures were manipulated?
Because I’m not working there any more, I’d say they’re damn fools. There are conspiracy theorists everywhere. These are people who don’t bother to find out the truth. It’s easier to make an accusation with no knowledge than to actually find out.
What kind of impact do presidents have, anyway? Their policies. But economies are so complicated now, and this has nothing to do with statistics. Maybe we should blame corporations for hiring and screwing up numbers at the last minute. And that doesn’t make any sense at all.