Socrates Warned Us: Government statistics can be twisted into any shape you like

Recently reported unemployment figures have apologists for the Trump administration all a-twitter. The reported figure of 4.0 percent is being touted as the lowest since 2000. The problem is, even giving them every benefit of the doubt, at best this is an incomplete and misleading calculation. At worst, it's a phony statistic.

To be fair, every administration I've studied has, in one way or the other, attempted to pull off a version of a statistical sleight of hand when it comes to interpreting economic statistics. They all seek ways to make inflation look lower and make job creation look higher. It isn't that difficult to pull off. To make unemployment numbers look lower than they really are, you can just stop counting as unemployed those people who have given up looking for work. That's been done before, and under Obama, Republicans were quick to point this out.

How about when it comes to income? Well, if you use an average you get one number, if you use the median you get another. Take your pick. To make inflation look lower, you simply change your reference, your timeframe. To make employment numbers look better, you might count part-time, underpaid workers as fully employed.

Obama did a somewhat less contrived version of the same thing — he made recovery on his watch from the 2008 debacle look somewhat better than it really was. Of course Bush II and his team had earlier worked diligently to make the coming 2008 bank debacle seem as unlikely as the Titanic hitting that iceberg.

My former Eastern Washington University colleague, the late Keith Quincy, sorted out the various options in his book, Worse Than You Think. His numbers showed that even the highly respected Joseph Stiglitz, who first addressed the charade in his book The Price of Inequality, had somewhat understated the situation. Like so many of his colleagues, even Stiglitz — a Nobel Prize winner — had been held somewhat hostage to the illusion game. It's that pervasive.

My advice? Take that 4.0 percent unemployment number with a grain of salt.

Meanwhile, the political right continues in its now almost 40-year-old effort to sell the discredited notion that wealth "trickles down," thus proving, they say, that wealth at the high end always translates into some wealth landing in the middle and lower end. The problem is they can't come up with an example of this ever having worked as advertised. Moreover, if we subject all their dubious economic claims to a serious political analysis, we can show that wealth always translates into power. And the lessons of history clearly show us that power, when concentrated, always does bad things to democracies.

Professor Quincy opened his study with a telling quote from Plato's Republic:

Socrates: "First, shouldn't we explain how a democracy becomes an oligarchy?"

Adeimantus: "Yes."

Socrates: "The crucial step is that the rich figure out how to manipulate politics so that laws benefit them instead of the public."

Adeimantus: "So it seems."

What Reagan's tax cut and war on unions demonstrated, and what Bush in 2008 underscored, and what Trump's regressive tax cuts illustrate is, to paraphrase Sinclair Lewis, "What Socrates warned against has arrived here."

We do know that unemployment, underemployment and private debt are higher than acknowledged; that the recession of 2008 hit the poor and the millennial generation harder than acknowledged. The truth is that some of what we deem to be the engines of salvation are making things worse for the public interest.

The Congressional Budget Office projects a massive mountain of new debt owing to the giveaways that Trump and his compliant Republican Congress just handed over to the few wealthy interests who control our politics. And when the bill comes due, guess who'll pay? It won't be the oligarchy. It will be those that neoliberalism has left behind — much of the middle class and the millennials. Both Quincy and Stiglitz call attention to what all this means for the current generation and, more broadly, for democracy.

Ironically, while the oligarchy predictably yowls about big government, in fact, it truly wants even bigger government. But here's the thing: They don't want government to "govern," rather they want government to "facilitate" the agenda of the rich. We know that to the oligarchy there is no "public interest." The only legitimate interests are private interests, and stockholders the only voting members.

This midterm election is all about the need to take Socrates' warning seriously. It's also about what Benjamin Franklin meant when, in response to the woman on the street who asked, "What kind of government have you given us," answered, "A republic, madam, if you can keep it."

But with an ignorant demagogue hunkered in the White House in full survival mode? Supported by an amoral and compliant Congress?

An open question, indeed. ♦