The left thinks they've got Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's number — his jobs creation number.
Walker's ambitious campaign pledge in 2010 that the battered Badger State economy would create 250,000 jobs during the course of his first term is currently about 150,000 jobs off the mark.
And the Democratic Party machine, beating the drum for its anointed gubernatorial candidate, Madison liberal millionaire Mary Burke, has made the jobs numbers its point of attack this election year.
The mainstream media loves to jump on the numbers, too.
What the Democrats never mention, and the usual news outlets generally bury, is that Wisconsin's economy at-large has come a long way in a very short time — following what the Obama administration is fond of describing as the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression.
And while jobs — and the jobs numbers on Walker's watch — will be the big issue in the Republican governor's re-election bid, one economic expert says measuring an economy on job creation alone, particularly in this unprecedented recovery, is a fool's errand.
"In terms of what's a full recovery, just counting jobs is a bit crude, I must say. There are a lot of things going on," said Keith Hall, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, a market-oriented research center.
Hall has lived the numbers, serving as the 13th commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics between 2008 and 2012, in the depths of the Great Recession.
Wisconsin's Department of Workforce Development last week reported that the state's private sector created north of 28,000 jobs in 2013, for a combined total of an estimated 101,000 private sector jobs during Walker's first three-plus years in office.
"Most people get better at their jobs the longer they do them, but three years in, Scott Walker has posted his worst jobs numbers yet," Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chairman Mike Tate chortled in a statement last week.
But politics, like numbers, is a game of comparisons — and you won't find these comparisons in Mike Tate's world:
- Wisconsin posted the best three-year December-to-December private sector job gains under any governor since 2000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
- The latest three-year gains compare to 133,000 private sector jobs lost during the previous four-year term of former Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat. Much of that span under Doyle included the recession and "shovel-ready" recovery.
- The job-growth numbers during the past three years are more than 27,000 higher than Doyle's job-creation record during his first three years in office — part of which Burke served as Doyle's commerce secretary.
- The latest employment numbers for April show Wisconsin posted the 16th highest gain nationally in private sector jobs, year over year, according to the state Department of Workforce Development (DWD), although the preliminary monthly figures are much more volatile than the BLS' Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages.
- Between April 2013 and April 2014, the state's private sector added 44,000 jobs. Wisconsin ranked 10th year over year in total non-farm job growth during the period, the best increase of any of its neighboring states. A total of 54,100 non-farm jobs were created between April 2013 and last month, according to DWD.
- Wisconsin saw a year-over-year increase in its critical manufacturing sector of 10,400 jobs, ranking fourth highest in the nation.
- And the state's unemployment rate has plummeted on Walker's watch — a full percentage point in the past year alone, from 6.8 percent in April 2013 to 5.8 percent last month.
A look behind the numbers shows Wisconsin faring much better than the national average in a key category.
Wisconsin's labor participation rate for individuals in the prime working age — 25 to 54 — is 81.5 percent, more than 5.5 points higher than the national average of 75.9 percent in that age range.
"That's important because these are the folks who have the highest participation rates generally in the labor force,"said Hall, the former BLS commissioner.
But Walker, like just about every other governor in America running for re-election this year, will have to deal with an economic recovery that has been much less robust nationwide than previous post-recession eras.
"That's largely a reflection of the slow national pace. We're not that dramatically different from areas around us or from the nation as a whole," said Bret Mayborne, economic research director at the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.
While Democrats are quick to hold Walker accountable for slower-than-hoped-for growth, they don't apply the same standards for their party's national leader.
President Barack Obama made some big jobs pledges in his 2008 campaign that he did not fulfill.
Remember when President-elect Obama promised that the nation's unemployment rate would not rise above 8 percent if the so-called stimulus package was enacted. The $830 billion — and counting — American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was signed into law, and the nation's jobless rate remained above 8 percent for nearly all of Obama's first term.
Obama also promised his administration's "green" initiatives would create 5 million energy jobs alone. Employing billions of tax dollars, the total number of such jobs created during Obama's first term was around 50,000.
"President Obama has an accountability problem. It's not simply that during the 2008 campaign he made extravagant promises to heal the planet, slow the rise of the oceans, end political divisions in America, and usher in an era of hope and change. It's that as a candidate and in the early days of his presidency, Obama and his top aides made a series of very specific promises on a range of issues," Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, wrote amid the 2012 presidential election.
Walker set ambitious goals, too, but he won't receive the same kind of leeway Obama has received from fellow Democrats and the mainstream media.
Hall said he always cringes when he hears politicians make job creation promises.
"Governments don't create jobs. All they can do is do their best to stay out of the way and create the best conditions for job growth," the Mercatus Center senior fellow said. "In some respects, we expect in the short run too much, too many results from our politicians, and in the long run we don't expect enough."
Hall cites surveys of small business owners that show the employers' top concerns are taxes and government regulations. Third on the list is demand for their products.
"They are more worried about the government going forward than generally weak demand," the economist said. "Those are the people we're going to have to count on to do a lot of the new hiring going forward."
Walker's opponents in just about every conceivable way have accused the governor of getting out of the way of business. He and majority Republicans in the Legislature have reformed burdensome regulations, posted some of the deepest tax cuts in years, and changed the rules of the game for public-sector collective bargaining, giving negotiating power back to taxpayers.
Ambitious goals have been the guide for Walker, considered a potential GOP candidate for president in 2016.
"As Gov. Walker has said, as a candidate for governor, he announced an aggressive jobs goal of 250,000 jobs by 2015 because he wants people all over our state to be able to find work and provide for their families. Every time we help someone find a job, it makes for a stronger home, a stronger community and a stronger state," said Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick.
The governor is banking on such reforms paying big job-creation dividends, but economic experts acknowledge the payoff may be years down the road.
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