Job Numbers Are Too Good For Words

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Two weeks ago the Federal Jobs Report showed our economy to be in an unusual sweet spot, with steady growth and widespread improvement in the labor market.

How Good Are The Job Numbers?

An Op-Ed contributor to the New York Times wrote that the biggest question in evaluating the May job numbers is whether there are enough synonyms for “good” in an English thesaurus to fully describe the situation.

As the contributor wrote, “splendid” and “excellent” would be the right fit for a situation where the United States economy adds 223,000 jobs in a month, despite being nine years into an expansion, and when the unemployment rate falls to 3.8 percent, a new 18-year low.

Other terms made the report as well: “salubrious,” “salutary” and “healthy” would describe the 0.3 percent rise in average hourly earnings, which are up 2.7 percent over the last year—a nice improvement but also not the kind of sharp increase that might lead the Federal Reserve to rethink its cautious path of interest rate increases.

Read the rest of the NYT article here:

…And a broader definition of unemployment, which includes people who have given up looking for a job out of frustration, fell to 7.6 percent. The jobless rate for African-Americans fell to 5.9 percent, the lowest on record, which we would count as “great.”

If anything, some of the thesaurus offerings don’t really do these numbers justice. But some aspects of the report would be fairly described as “solid,” “decent” or “benign,” such as the uptick in the ratio of the adult population that is employed to 60.4 percent, which only matches its recent high of earlier in the year.

Then there are other thesaurus synonyms for “good” that we don’t normally use in reference to employment numbers, but which are apropos this month. For example, “congruous,” in the sense that the various pieces of the report align with each other: Employers are creating more jobs, leading more people to work and fewer people to be unemployed, and leading wages to rise.

And the numbers are “propitious” and “agreeable” in that they affirm that the United States economy is in basically sound shape, displaying neither the slightest warning signs of recession nor any clear evidence of overheating and inflation risks.

Not all of the thesaurus words for “good” work quite so well in describing the May jobs numbers. For example, I’ve never tried to eat the 39-page report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but I’m pretty sure “toothsome” and “palatable” are not adjectives I would use.

I would also argue against viewing economic data through the kind of philosophical lens that might lead a person to view employment data as “virtuous” or “righteous.” Macroeconomics is more like a really unpredictable machine than it is a morality play in which one set of policies is inherently more righteous than the other. (German economists, with their fierce opposition to deficits and fear of inflation, might disagree.)

So in an era of geopolitical risks and potential trade wars, the thing to take away from the May numbers is that the United States economy just keeps humming along at a steady pace, putting more people to work and at gradually higher wages.

It isn’t perfect — wage growth remains unexceptional despite its growth spurt in May, and the ratio of prime-age adults working remains below its historical levels.

But it has been a strikingly durable and steady expansion, which is what the nation needed after the scars of the 2008 recession. And that’s just plain “good.”

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