96 Million Americans Are Looking For a Job

The real number is around 5.1 million, but what does that mean anymore?

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.

The Trump Regime has a whole host of Baghdad Bobs on the payroll. Their job is to appear on television, repeat lies, and pretend they are hurt when someone points out that they are lying.