On January 22, 1930, not quite three months after the stock-market crash and the ensuing economic collapse, the Times, in a front-page article, quoted President Herbert Hoover saying that “the tide of employment has changed in the right direction.” His Secretary of Labor, James J. Davis, citing reports on America’s industries, pronounced the country “well on the way to complete recovery.”
Reading the article, Frances Perkins, the industrial commissioner of New York State, was horrified. She knew that the President was relying on data from the U.S. Employment Service, a notoriously inaccurate source, rather than from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which showed that huge numbers of people were being laid off. She imagined the psychological harm that Hoover’s words would inflict on the unemployed, writing in her memoir that she feared the jobless “would feel that there was something wrong with them personally. A great despair would enter their hearts.” Young people would “read the story and say, ‘Why doesn’t Papa work?’ ”
Perkins called a press conference, prompting a national scandal about statistical methodology. Within a month, the Times was condemning Hoover’s misuse of data and praising Perkins (who went on to become Secretary of Labor under Franklin Roosevelt). The economist overseeing the unemployment numbers quit when he learned that the Administration also was trying to alter Bureau of Labor Statistics data to make them seem sunnier. Congress commissioned the development of objective employment data, and, since the nineteen-forties, two government data sets have been essential measures of the nation’s economic health.
Those statistics have often played a role in politics. In good times—under Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton—the data have helped an incumbent win reëlection. In bad times—Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush—the data have contributed to defeat….