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Tony Fratto: White House Counts Jobs, But Not What Counts


We can count our blessings. We can count sheep. We can count our chickens before they hatch. We can even count how many licks it takes to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop.

But we can't count the net employment impact of the President's stimulus spending.

The White House will be at it today with yet another report attempting to show the number of jobs "saved or created" resulting from President Obama's $787 billion stimulus bill.

I can imagine the White House communications shop checking and double-checking with jobs-counting staff to get the numbers right this time after the double-counting and error-plagued earlier reports. But I can't imagine a more useless exercise that completely misses the aims of an expensive stimulus bill.

No one disputes that if the federal government shovels largess to states and businesses, some jobs will be "saved" and some jobs will even be "created". And I'd be happy to concede whatever number of jobs the White House claims are directly attributable to the stimulus if the White House would be willing to honestly acknowledge that it has no clue what impact the stimulus has had on net employment — and how useless its number is from a macro-economic standpoint.

Let's pretend for the sake of argument that the White House's numbers are accurate (even as news organizations have demonstrated flaws in their accounting). The White House claims "hundreds of thousands of jobs" have been "saved or created".

Job Losses
Job Losses

They'll try to make that sound big, but let's put it into context: More than 500,000 Americans filed for unemployment benefits this week. More than 500,000 Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week. And more than 500,000 Americans are likely to file for unemployment benefits next week. In fact, even with a roaring economy, with very low unemployment, more than 250,000 Americans will lose their jobs and file for unemployment in a given week.

In addition, nearly 140 million Americans are at work today, even with unemployment running at 10%, and between 100,000-130,000 adult Americans enter the labor force every month, all looking for jobs. So, to reduce unemployment a net increase of more than 130,000 will have to be created EVERY MONTH to begin to reduce the unemployment rate.

Understood that way, the numbers the White House will cite are puny, and however happy we might be for the workers who have jobs as a direct result of that spending, the stimulus is having an exceedingly minimal impact on overall job creation.

What really counts is net job creation — jobs created minus jobs lost on a seasonally-adjusted basis. But since neither the White House nor anyone else can say with any degree of accuracy what employment would otherwise have been absent the stimulus, it has no earthly clue what the net impact of the stimulus is — not because they didn't try to count, but because it's impossible.

And net job creation is negative and will remain negative for a long time — until net job creation turns positive the unemployment rate will continue to rise, and the economic recovery will be tepid.

Whatever numbers the White House claims, that's something you can count on.

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Tony Fratto is a CNBC on-air contributor and most recently served as Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy Press Secretary for the Bush Administration.