As the New York Times delicately reports, Mr. Obama's jobs claims are "based on macroeconomic estimates, not an actual counting of jobs." Nice work if you can get away with it.
And get away with it he has. However dubious it may be as an economic measure, as a political formula "save or create" allows the president to invoke numbers that convey an illusion of precision. Harvard economist and former Bush economic adviser Greg Mankiw calls it a "non-measurable metric." And on his blog, he acknowledges the political attraction.
"The expression 'create or save,' which has been used regularly by the President and his economic team, is an act of political genius," writes Mr. Mankiw. "You can measure how many jobs are created between two points in time. But there is no way to measure how many jobs are saved. Even if things get much, much worse, the President can say that there would have been 4 million fewer jobs without the stimulus."
Mr. Obama's comments yesterday are a perfect illustration of just such a claim. In the months since Congress approved the stimulus, our economy has lost nearly 1.6 million jobs and unemployment has hit 9.4%. Invoke the magic words, however, and -- presto! -- you have the president claiming he has "saved or created" 150,000 jobs. It all makes for a much nicer spin, and helps you forget this is the same team that only a few months ago promised us that passing the stimulus would prevent unemployment from rising over 8%.
It's true that almost any government spending will create some jobs and save others. But as Milton Friedman once pointed out, that doesn't tell you much: The government, after all, can create jobs by hiring people to dig holes and fill them in.
If the "saved or created" formula looks brilliant, it's only because Mr. Obama and his team are not being called on their claims. And don't expect much to change. So long as the news continues to repeat the administration's line that the stimulus has already "saved or created" 150,000 jobs over a time period when the U.S. economy suffered an overall job loss 10 times that number, the White House would be insane to give up a formula that allows them to spin job losses into jobs saved.