Terry Branstad can't quit pushing phony job creation numbers

For years, Governor Terry Branstad and his appointees have cited fake job creation statistics to create the illusion that Iowa was on track to fulfill one of Branstad’s key promises from the 2010 campaign. This week, the deception culminated in an official slideshow “indicating that 206,200 gross jobs have been created in Iowa since 2011, based upon current employment statistics.”

It’s a shame the governor can’t celebrate Iowa’s low unemployment rate without exaggerating job growth during his administration.

It’s even more unfortunate when major news media downplay the dishonesty underlying Branstad’s claims.

Branstad’s target of creating 200,000 jobs in five years never looked realistic, given this state’s longstanding employment trends. Even the governor’s top appointee for economic development, Debi Durham, described the number as a “stretch goal” soon after the 2010 election.

Iowa Policy Project Executive Director Mike Owen observed in October of this year (emphasis in original),

Overall, we continue to have stubbornly and staggeringly slow job growth in Iowa. We are only about halfway to the ambitious job goal set by Governor Branstad when he sought Terrace Hill in 2010 — 200,000 jobs in five years. Through 56 of those 60 months, Iowa’s economy has added only 97,400 jobs.

That we don’t have a chance of reaching his goal is not surprising, as the long-term trend of 2,000 or fewer jobs added per month, which has held through his term, is far too slow a pace for the job growth that the Governor promised.

The Department of Numbers website is a good resource for monthly employment data from every state. Click here for charts showing monthly job growth or loss in Iowa since late 2006. Those charts use standard measures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: the Current Employment Statistics survey and the Current Population Survey. The Department of Numbers also compares the latest monthly job growth numbers for every state.

Iowa Workforce Development releases job data every month, typically providing details on net gains or losses in employment in various sectors.

But since Branstad returned to the governor’s office in 2011, he instructed Iowa Workforce Development to track employment in a new way as well: adding jobs created to produce a “gross over-the-month employment gains” number, without subtracting jobs lost during the same period. No economist or labor market analyst would ever take such a “bizarre count” seriously.

Nevertheless, this week Branstad trotted out the phony number again as proof that he kept his campaign promise. Rod Boshart reported for the Cedar Rapids Gazette,

During a fiscal 2017 budget presentation [on November 30], Beth Townsend, director of Iowa Workforce Development, included a slide indicating that 206,200 gross jobs have been created in Iowa since 2011, based upon current employment statistics.

“We hit that mark last week,” said Branstad, who requested that Townsend back up the slideshow to re-emphasize that the number of jobs created since he returned to office in January 2011 had topped the 200,000 goal he set during his campaign to defeat incumbent Democrat Chet Culver.

The Iowa Policy Project quickly objected to the deception. I enclose the full statement from Mike Owen at the end of this post, but here are the key points:

Today, during its budget hearing before Governor Branstad, Iowa Workforce Development promoted a bogus picture of job growth in our state. IWD Director Beth Townsend owes it to the people of Iowa to retract this inaccurate picture. […]

First, the actual number of jobs added in Iowa since January 2011 is 101,700, according to the latest actual data. This is a full accounting of jobs added and jobs lost in all major job sectors tracked through the official Current Employment Statistics, available on the IWD website at this link: iwin.iwd.state.ia.us/pubs/ces/nonseasonal.xlsx. […]

By contrast, the “gross gains” measure added to the IWD monthly nonfarm jobs spreadsheet early in the Branstad administration is a political contrivance. It has nothing to do with the actual state of employment in Iowa, and is plainly bogus math. It is solely about politics, and it has no place in official Iowa Workforce Development spreadsheets or presentations.

The standard media frame for reporting political controversy is “he said/she said,” giving equal weight to both perspectives to avoid the appearance of bias. Boshart’s story for the Cedar Rapids Gazette provided an excellent example. The newspaper balanced its headline “Branstad: Goal of 200,000 jobs met” with the sub-head “Critics call governor’s claim ‘bogus, inaccurate.’” The lede gave a nod to both points of view: “Gov. Terry Branstad’s contention that his administration has achieved the job-creation goal he set during the 2010 campaign did not sit well with some critics on Monday.”

As media analysts have pointed out for decades, the “he said/she said” frame breaks down when journalists fail to inform news consumers that one side’s argument is not grounded in facts. Boshart devoted three paragraphs to the Iowa Policy Project’s perspective, noting the calculation of the 101,700 Iowa jobs added and quoting Owen’s harsh assessment:

“It’s clearly a bogus number, and it has no business being in an official presentation or document of any kind by a state agency. This is totally a political number. It has nothing to do with math or economics,” Owen said in an interview. “It has no basis in reality.”

In deflecting the Iowa Public Policy [sic] criticism, Branstad said, “We’ve always said gross jobs, not net. They want to use net jobs.”

“We’ve got it down to 3.5 percent unemployment. Every county in this state has a lower unemployment rate than the day I took office,” the governor said. “Any way you look at it, it’s been a success, and we’re proud of it.”

Thus ended Boshart’s story, leaving Cedar Rapids Gazette readers with the impression that some people like to count gross jobs, while others prefer to count net jobs.

No. The issue is not “some critics” (per Boshart’s lede) believing Iowa should measure employment growth in terms of net jobs. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and all economists on the planet look at net jobs added to or subtracted from the economy. No credible source would ever use a “gross” job creation number, because it has no significance.

Boshart’s piece was far more balanced than O.Kay Henderson’s November 30 report for Radio Iowa. That story, distributed to dozens of affiliate radio stations, was headlined “Branstad manager says governor’s 2010 job creation promise fulfilled.” Excerpt:

“We just went over 200,000 jobs created since the beginning of the Branstad Administration,” Beth Townsend, director of Iowa Workforce Development, said during a budget presentation. […]

She said more than 206,000 jobs have been created since January of 2011. Iowa’s unemployment rate currently sits at three-and-a-half percent.

“So good news on the economic front, on the jobs front,” Townsend said.

The final paragraph of Henderson’s story acknowledged doubts about the accuracy of those job numbers and mentioned the alternate figure of 101,700 “jobs added in Iowa since January 2011.” But by introducing those points as something “Critics say” and identifying the Iowa Policy Project as a “liberal think tank,” Henderson gave listeners every reason to view this controversy as a few liberals grousing over “good news” while the governor celebrates a campaign promise kept.

The Des Moines Register’s Jason Noble showed in an August 2014 piece how journalists can convey this debate more accurately.

But a Des Moines Register review of state economic data and a survey of labor economists finds some of the numbers Branstad cites tend to be either poor measures of whether his goals are being achieved or are not widely recognized as meaningful statistics. […]

What the numbers say: As of July, total nonfarm employment in the state was 1,550,200, compared with 1,476,200 when Branstad took office in January 2011. That’s an increase of 74,000 jobs. This is the widely accepted net new jobs number reported by Iowa Workforce Development and used by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. […]

What Branstad says: […] Upon returning to office, the governor’s administration created a new statistic and began adding it to Iowa Workforce Development’s monthly jobs report. The figure — called “Gross Over-the-Month Employment Gains” — counts all the jobs created but ignores those that were lost.

By that measure, the governor has seen 146,100 jobs created under his watch, putting him ahead of the necessary pace to hit the five-year goal.

A gross jobs figure doesn’t seem to match Branstad’s announced goal, though. Describing the goal on the governor’s website and in his 2011 inaugural address, Branstad says he wanted to create 200,000 “new” jobs — that is, jobs that didn’t exist when he took office. That formulation almost demands that he use a net rather than gross number.

Misleading spin is bad enough during an election campaign. This governor has tarnished the credibility of Iowa Workforce Development as a source of accurate employment data. Journalists should not let themselves be similarly used to promote a politically-motivated fairy tale.

P.S.- Arguably, every news account of any governor “creating” jobs misleads, since governors have little influence over labor markets. Economist Colin Gordon, a senior research associate for the Iowa Policy Project, noted in January 2013,

There is nothing exceptional about the Iowa experience. Our job numbers closely track national and regional trends, although — as with the rest of the West North Central Region — insulation from the housing crash and high commodity prices cushioned us from the full impact of the recession. And the rate at which we are adding jobs (much too slowly) is virtually identical to that of the region and the nation.

UPDATE: Iowa State University economist Dave Swenson created a helpful graphic and gave me permission to post it here.

Phony vs real Iowa job growth photo CVVHJt1VAAAau2U_zpsm6ebugqc.jpg

SECOND UPDATE: The Des Moines Register’s lead editorial on December 4 took on Branstad playing “fast and loose with job numbers.” The kicker is fantastic:

To understand why this is such an egregious distortion of the truth, consider this: If an Iowan suddenly finds himself laid off from a good-paying job, and then takes a new job at half the pay, this personal calamity is considered a success by the Branstad administration: A job has been created, and that’s all that counts. No one considers, or even acknowledges, the job that was lost.

Granted, the public fully expects political candidates to cite only those statistics that bolster the arguments they are making.

But they don’t expect a sitting governor to use a nonpartisan, publicly funded state agency to manufacture and disseminate misinformation simply to make himself look good.

As things stand now, Iowa taxpayers are paying Iowa Workforce Development to create and distribute political propaganda that’s aimed directly at them. It needs to stop.

I would add: respected journalists need to stop being accomplices in the distribution of such political propaganda.

Full statement from the Iowa Policy Project on November 30:

Iowa Jobs Far Short of Governor’s Goal
IWD presentation promotes bogus job growth number
Statement by Mike Owen, IPP Executive Director
MONDAY, NOVEMBER 30, 2015

IOWA CITY, Iowa (Nov. 30, 2015) — The Iowa Policy Project today issued a statement from Executive Director Mike Owen regarding job growth claims offered by Iowa Workforce Development in a public budget hearing in Des Moines:

Today, during its budget hearing before Governor Branstad, Iowa Workforce Development promoted a bogus picture of job growth in our state. IWD Director Beth Townsend owes it to the people of Iowa to retract this inaccurate picture.

Without repeating the error promoted in the IWD presentation, we would make two critical observations:

First, the actual number of jobs added in Iowa since January 2011 is 101,700, according to the latest actual data. This is a full accounting of jobs added and jobs lost in all major job sectors tracked through the official Current Employment Statistics, available on the IWD website at this link: iwin.iwd.state.ia.us/pubs/ces/nonseasonal.xlsx.

Second, it should be no surprise that Iowa’s economy has fallen far short of the Governor’s ambitious goal of 200,000 new jobs in five years. Iowa jobs have risen at a pace of fewer than 2,000 jobs per month for five years. Monthly job growth would have needed to average 3,300 for the goal to be met.

The stubbornly slow pace of job growth has kept Iowa from full recovery from a recession that ended six years ago, before the Governor took office. While in overall numbers we have gained more jobs than the number lost during the recession, Iowa remains short of the number needed to keep up with population growth. Compared with the start of the recession, we are still nearly 35,000 jobs behind on that measure — a far more accurate sense of the condition of the Iowa economy at the end of 2015.

By contrast, the “gross gains” measure added to the IWD monthly nonfarm jobs spreadsheet early in the Branstad administration is a political contrivance. It has nothing to do with the actual state of employment in Iowa, and is plainly bogus math. It is solely about politics, and it has no place in official Iowa Workforce Development spreadsheets or presentations.

For more information about Iowa jobs, we encourage you to visit our website, and review our monthly Iowa Jobwatch — for a look at the relevant numbers. Find the latest Iowa JobWatch report at http://www.iowapolicyproject.org/IowaJobWatch.html.

  • 104,500 jobs lost under Branstad

    To just use gross figures means the administration lost 104,500 jobs in the state since taking office, as ISU’s Peter Orazem pointed out in this article from back in November 2013.
    “Arguing that gross accessions are the appropriate measure suggests that one could just as easily use job destruction as the measure.”
    http://siouxcityjournal.com/news/local/state-and-regional/did-branstad-fulfill-promise-to-create-jobs/article_e93a4121-0443-5d71-9638-ed1cf5876cb2.html

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