February 01, 2004

Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? Part DLI

Reuters cannot do its own math. Under the headline "Self-Employment May Mask U.S. Job Growth," Reuters reports that self-employed workers have grown by 4%--i.e., 600,000. But Reuters does not give its readers the 600,000 number and compare it to the 3,000,000 discrepancy between the household survey and the payroll survey.

Why oh why can't we have a better press corps?

Self - Employment May Mask U.S. Job Growth: Because she is one of more than 15 million self-employed workers in the United States, Temescu is on nobody's payroll -- and thus does not show up on the Labor Department's employer survey used each month to assess the strength of the job market. The failure of the survey to count independent contractors has come under fire by President Bush's economic team and some analysts, who argue it underestimates job growth by ignoring one of the fastest-growing sectors of the economy. "There is a big error factor in those numbers,'' Treasury Secretary John Snow said after Labor reported a scant 1,000 rise in December payrolls. "I think they may well have understated (job growth), and we will see a restatement in the future.''

A rise in self-employed and other nonpayroll workers would bolster the argument of Bush supporters that the ``jobless'' nature of America's recovery has been exaggerated. While outsourcing is not new, a rise in self-employed contractors could explain the slow rebound in employment as counted by the payrolls survey, which shows 2.3 million jobs have been lost since Bush took office in January 2001. For the same period, a smaller study of households, based on the Current Population Survey, shows a 700,000 rise in employment -- a seemingly contradictory sign that has fueled Republican skepticism about the accuracy of the bleaker payrolls data.

According to the Current Population Survey, the number of self-employed Americans surged 3.9 percent in the last three years, far outstripping a 0.6 percent rise in overall employment.

But experts also take issue with the household survey, saying it is too small, too volatile and possibly overstates population growth. Moreover, it registers a worker as employed even if he or she works only one hour in the survey week. Federal Reserve Governor Ben Bernanke said the household survey's accuracy could also suffer if individuals misunderstand the questions "or for one reason or another misreport their own labor market status or that of other members of the household..."

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REASONS WHY THE JOBLESS NUMBERS ARE NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT:

(Is anyone keeping record?)

1. Baby-boomers are retiring early thanks to the appreciation of their assets.

2. Teens are foregoing work to hit the books.

3. Everyone's self-employed now.

Posted by: leo on February 1, 2004 09:08 PM

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Maybe it's clipped from: "Self-employed PARTIALLY masks..." or maybe with more precision:"Self-employed masks 1/5 of..." Nah.
I find this one just lazy, hopeful and optimistic for no good reason(s).
Soft spin --when you need to know that things are all right and getting better.

Posted by: calmo on February 1, 2004 10:43 PM

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leo: I also have read #4 somewhere: "Rising unemployment is a sign that people again start looking for jobs after having lost hope (and thus having fallen out of the statistic), which indicates that the economy is improving".

On a more serious note, I do believe that self "employment" is on the rise, and even know some anecdotes myself, but we should think twice before redefining what jobs and employment are. Being "self-employed" by itself constitutes neither a job nor employment (see below).

I frankly cannot make out how self-employment relates to the survey and the unemployment rate precisely. I managed to find a page with the raw interview questions at the census website, but it is not very helpful for this specific question. If anybody is interested, here are the pages. A dump of all actual questions is in the third page. However what this does not show is the sequence of the questions based on what answers were given.

http://www.bls.census.gov/cps/cpsmain.htm
http://www.bls.census.gov/cps/bmethdoc.htm
http://www.bls.census.gov/cps/bqestair.htm

There is a definitions page:

http://www.bls.census.gov/cps/intmanb1.htm

that says, among other things:

In section 1.D, Work:

"Work includes any activity for wages or salary, for profit or fees, or for payment in kind. One hour or more of such activity constitutes work. Work also includes unpaid activity of at least 15 hours a week on a family farm or business."

In section 1.E, Job:

"A job exists when there is a definite arrangement for regular work every week, or every month, for pay or other compensation (e.g., profits, anticipated profits, or pay in kind, such as room and board)."

And as an example of what is _not_ a job:
"Work as needed. Work done as needed, and not done on a continuing basis. An example would be a consultant who works on an as-needed basis."

Note, BTW, that the definition of job does not specify whether it is of a limited or indefinite duration. But the phrase "every week/month" suggests that it should cover at least several, if not many, consecutive such units. Where does the concept of "every" start making sense to you -- 3, 6, 9 units, etc.?

(There is also a small section on businesses.)

It does appear to me that the household survey covers those people who work on contracts. Those that operate a business under whose name they perform their services should be covered by the establishment survey (at least statistically).

One important thing one should not forget over all the semantic quibbles and hair-splitting is that the (un)employment surveys are designed to measure the degree of the productive labor capacity (under)utilization as an important indicator of the health of the economy. Raising those sudden concerns over what a job is, and suggesting that it should cover a broader range of (involuntary?) part-time work is to a large extent only an attempt to question the validity of this indicator as it is obviously in an unfavorable region.

Posted by: cm on February 1, 2004 11:54 PM

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An increasingly visible sector of the "self-employed" [in the USA] is the "Hobby Business Sector"---persons who live on private incomes, but "feel the urge" to appear "productive." They often expend lots of effort/time on their "business"; usually "make" no measurable net income.
They might have time to answer the survey questions affirmatively.

Posted by: Hoffmann on February 2, 2004 02:47 AM

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Also, the spread of state lotteries has made quite a few people instant millionaires. There is a big error factor in those numbers. The labor participation rates fall (or fail to climb) as many people are freed from work. Often after winning the lottery. Who could deny the benefits of that! Would that we were all so lucky.

Posted by: andrew on February 2, 2004 03:06 AM

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Brad,

All of the numbers in the Reuters piece are wrong in any case. The CPS gives total self-employment in December at 10 million, not 15 million.

The year-on-year comparison for self-employment is affected by the same population re-adjustments in Jan 2003 that affect the total CPS employment number. One way around this is to calculate the "self-employment rate" -- i.e. total self-employment as % of the total civilian population. Annual averages of the monthly data from the CPS are as follows:

1993 5.3
1994 5.4
1995 5.3
1996 5.2
1997 5.2
1998 5.0
1999 4.9
2000 4.8
2001 4.7
2002 4.6
2003 4.7

Far from a wave of the future, self-employment has trended downwards as a % of the adult population in recent years, with a small reversal in 2003. In particular, the Reuters finding "According to the Current Population Survey, the number of self-employed Americans surged 3.9 percent in the last three years" is entirely due to population change -- the self-employment rate was actually down slightly between 2000 and 2003.

Posted by: Terry on February 2, 2004 03:10 AM

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The piece quotes directly from John Snow. This is not reporting it is stenography. It merely parrots the treasury spin. If it is the usual newspaper article, about 1/3 of the facts will be wrong. It does seem that with the internet, that more people with a combination of knowledge and writing skills could be found. Except for specialty magazines most reporters are good, quick writers, but jack of all trades and master of none. Short lead times exacerbate the problem.

Posted by: bakho on February 2, 2004 05:20 AM

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When you see those Ford ads pushing the 2004 F-150 truck because of its wonderful suspension, bear in mind that the parts of that suspension are made by $8.00 an hour temps, hired to keep the work from falling into the hands of union-members who would make twice that, plus benefits.

The temps are of course all self-employed, contract, workers.

Posted by: David Lloyd-Jones on February 2, 2004 06:29 AM

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Dumb question, but wasn't the issue of overall employment rising or falling the key point of the article? If so, where does this 0.6% rise that is asserted come from? Sorry if this is something obvious that I am not seeing.

Posted by: Johnathan on February 2, 2004 07:53 AM

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September 18, 2003

Alan B. Krueger - New York Times

Much has been made recently of the divergent trends displayed by the two surveys. Since the official end of the recession in November 2001, the establishment survey indicates that employment fell by 1.1 million jobs while the household survey indicates that it grew by 1.4 million.

But the picture is not nearly as cloudy as some have made it out to be. First, the household survey shows an artificial jump of more than half a million jobs in January 2003 because of a technical adjustment that ratcheted up the size of the population that month.

Second, the two surveys count jobs differently. The household survey counts people who hold two jobs only once, while the establishment survey excludes self-employed, private household and agricultural workers, for example.

If adjustments are made to the household survey to make it count jobs in a manner comparable to the establishment survey, then instead of an increase of 842,000 jobs since August 2002, the household survey indicates a loss of 425,000 jobs -- almost as large as the 560,000 jobs lost according to the establishment survey.

These adjustments do not account for the entire divergence between the surveys since the end of the recession, but both surveys point to a job-loss recovery.

[Bendheim professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University]

Posted by: anne on February 2, 2004 09:45 AM

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So if I read the survey Q's correctly - if I spend on hour each week trying to sell off my possessions on eBay to prevent foreclosure - I'm considered "EMPLOYED" - YAY!

Also check this Detroit Free Press Story on the decline in average pay of the new jobs created during the Bush Admin versus the jobs they replaced: http://www.freep.com/money/business/jobs30_20040130.htm

the story also has some anecdotal examples of what people are doing that the Household survey may be counting as "employment".

Posted by: Cy Guy on February 2, 2004 10:33 AM

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The advent of the LLC has made it easy for anyone to operate a business through a formal entity, while helping to limit their liability. How are these people/entities counted?

Posted by: Masaccio on February 2, 2004 10:39 AM

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I would think that the key question is about purchasing power. As a so called "self employed" person, whose self employment has been thrust upon him by the Bush recession, I've experienced the shrinkage in credit, in insurance coverage, and in all the things that go with a payroll job. Even leaving these aside, surely the household survey could include some questions pertaining to purchasing power, which I think would clue us into the respondent's actual situation. If there is no difference in the purchasing power of a self described 'self employed' person and a self described "unemployed' person, what we are seeing here is the upward spin characteristic of responses to surveys concerning one's economic status in America. Notoriously, some 14 to 20 percent of Americans will describe themselves as in the top 5 percentile. To err upward has everything to do with saving face. Any survey that isn't constructed so as to get around that social fact will simply be engaging in numerology, not quantification.

ps -- is it true that one hour a week puts you in the self employed category? If so, we surely run a 100% employment rate in this country. Isn't it sweet?

Posted by: roger on February 2, 2004 12:51 PM

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I was going to post here about my own observations about what "self-employment" really means, but many of you beat me to it (including another Roger, just above).

Still, for what it's worth: I'm a seasonal tax preparer (now in my fourth year with H&R Block. Not as bad as it sounds, by the way). Last season I saw quite a jump in the number of Schedule C's I had to prepare, many of them showing losses or very minimal income. Again and again, my clients told me they'd started little businesses trying to bring in an extra dollar because they'd lost their far-better regular employment.

This year, the trend is even more pronounced.

Mind you, too, that many more of my clients probably should be filing a Schedule C but tactfully refuse to tell me about the home business. They fail to disclose this information either because the business they've got going is very trivial and they don't want to have their tax prep fee jump by $80 or more in order to declare $200 in business profits. Or, because they resent having to shell out nearly 15% of what little profit they did manage for their Social Security and Medicare taxes ... those taxes, you know, that are NEVER cut by the Republicans.

In any case, my point is the same one several posters above allude to: just because you're become "self-employed" doesn't mean you're actually earning anything.

-- Roger

Posted by: Marsman on February 2, 2004 04:37 PM

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Cy Guy: "So if I read the survey Q's correctly - if I spend on hour each week trying to sell off my possessions on eBay to prevent foreclosure - I'm considered "EMPLOYED" - YAY!"

No. Personal sales are not employment, by the census definition. And I would doubt that (based on my links?) you could read the survey questions "correctly". Which questions are actually being asked depends on answers given to prior questions, and how it depends they don't say.

Regarding the article, it also hints at a transformation of the industry (together with the jobs) towards more lower-tier suppliers with smaller profit margins and thus smaller pay/benefits. But then that's just the same old outsourcing, converting in-house work subject to collective bargaining and same-company anti-discrimination policies to independent suppliers. The reliance on temp contractors is just outsourcing in a different guise.

Posted by: cm on February 2, 2004 04:47 PM

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roger: purchasing power, self employment

Arguably (and really by my own speculation) probing the employment situation is not done to measure people's economic situation or purchasing power, but to measure the degree to which the society's capacity to work (i.e. create value) is utilized. (Which is not to say that measuring the purchasing power of the population would not be instructive or desirable.) But then the employment situation is kind of a proxy to people's aggregate financial situation.

Quoting from http://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/1996/01/art1exc.htm (the PDF file):

""Were you employed by government, a private company, a nonprofit organization, or were you self-employed (...)?" ... Persons who respond that they are self-employed are asked, "Is this business incorporated?". Those who respond in the affirmative are also classified as wage and salary workers. The "no's" are the self-employed. The rationale for classifying the incorporated self-employed as wage and salary workers is that, legally, they are employees of their own business."

That answers my own question from a previous post. When combining this with the other definitions, it appears that the self-employed who are incorporated count as regular employees. Go figure what this means for the unemployment rate. In my view it does not qualify as employment, as there is no ongoing employment agreement between these people and a _different_ entity, and they also are not working for a set wage.

Posted by: cm on February 2, 2004 05:17 PM

____

Marsman: Thanks for sharing this. Regarding the nondisclosure, I figure you are asking them direct questions and they give evasive answers, or how do you determine they have a business that they hide from you?

On the other hand, I can imagine somebody spinning this a proof of people's "entrepreneurial spirit".

Posted by: cm on February 2, 2004 05:22 PM

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CM: And thank you for the explication of your previous posts! As for how I know my clients are not telling me things, there are several ways. One way comes in the form of clues they drop while answering my questions. The question we always ask is, "Besides the W2s you've got here, do you have any other income from any other source?" One can just watch their expressions, and count the seconds before the answer comes: people on W2 or retirement income only will usually not hesitate a second to say, "Nope, that's all there is." Sometimes they start to say, "Oh, I fix ..." and then stop (they fix cars or bikes or lawnmowers or whatever, earning a few bucks here and there). Occasionally I'll have someone say, "Oh, no other income except this" as they hand me one lone 1099-MISC. I know darned good and well they probably worked for several clients -- all, usually, for trivial sums -- but only one scrupulously sent out 1099s.

Then there was the client who was running a small business selling throw rugs from the back of his van on weekends at an empty lot. I'd seen him two dozen times during the year out there. When I asked about "other income," there was the predictable pause before he said, "Nope, nothing."

Now there's nothing new about the underground economy. It's frustrating to me because, at times, the lies are fairly evident, and being a straight-shooter I really want people to 'fess up. But by Oregon law and IRS rules, we aren't auditors: unless the lies are just brazen, we must take folks at their word.

The key thing to me is that the number of folks telling me about their little wannabe businesses are way up, and so too the number of suspicious pauses after the "other income" question. It's a data point worth noting.

(By the way, bet you dollars for doughnuts that the number of "self-employed" people just skyrocketed during the Great Depression. I don't know that for a fact, but it makes sense. My own grandfather was hit by it horribly, and I know from family lore that he tried all kinds of little money-making schemes, from selling shoes door-to-door to surveying to doing yard work for neighbors. Despite that, they were so poor that one year they collected fallen peaches in an orchard, then found empty jars at the dump, and finally spent most of what they had -- 5 or 10 cents -- to buy some sugar and sealing wax. My grandmother then canned all those peaches in the squatter's camp they were at, and that is pretty much what they lived on for the entire winter that year. Talk about hard-scrabble living!)

And, yeah, I think you're absolutely right: the rightwing sleazebags wouldn't like the obvious conclusions that flow from this. So they surely would try to "spin" it as some kind of positive thing.

-- Roger Keeling

Posted by: Marsman on February 2, 2004 07:09 PM

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Mr. Marsman, very interesting stuff. I wonder if anybody is picking up on tax preparation data to understand the composition of employment in this country.

As for my own question about purchasing power -- I assume, I guess, that when economists talk about how the economy needs a higher employment rate sustain economic growth, the premise is that the salaries and wages, multiplied by the credit that such salaries and wages generate, will go into the purchase of homes, cars, toys, computers, and what have you. I hadn't thought about it from the other side -- as an index of "the degree to which the society's capacity to work (i.e. create value) is utilized." But of course that must be true. Certainly, if I could chose between working for myself with the benefits that accrue to salaried workers who are employed by someone else, I'd opt for the first. And I think that the self-employed do create value.

The point I was making in my post, however, was that economists ought to be more creative, when looking at a divergence between two surveys about employment, than to simply chose one or the other of them as it suits the particular economist's ideology. Instead of affirming a thesis, I think the divergence poses a question. A good question, too, about structural changes in the American economy right now.

Posted by: roger on February 3, 2004 02:57 PM

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roger: Nobody seriously disputes the flaws in the surveys. Who looks into the (published!) methodologies, which admittedly takes some time, will find that the surveys produce different numbers, but that consistently.

Regarding the benefit of "working for yourself", well, you are only doing that as a subsistence farmer; otherwise you have to work for others, presumably for compensation, and trade the proceeds against food, housing, etc. So in today's labor-divided and -specialized economy, it's only a choice in which way you work for others, and what compensation "package" you get out of it.

Let me reiterate my point that for self-employed and incorporated people the "degree" to which they are employed is difficult to measure, as they probably won't lay themselves off from their own company if business is tough, or arguably won't properly account for times between contracts. So one self-employed person does not necessarily equal one job. Also I estimate that you will have to make somewhere around 30-50% more in gross income as an independent consultant to break even after taxes (double FICA!) and comparable benefits.

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