GOP economist concerned data quality may be hurt under Trump

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(Bloomberg) -- A top Republican economist is lending a bipartisan note to concerns that the Trump administration will degrade the quality of the nation’s economic data, after the president called unemployment numbers “phony” on the campaign trail.

“I remain concerned, particularly in an environment where you’re talking about cutting the budget, that a victim in that exercise could be the production of good data,” Glenn Hubbard, who served as chairman of President George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers from 2001 to 2003, said Monday in Washington.

Administration officials have said President Donald Trump’s first budget plan will propose boosting defense spending by $54 billion, offset by an equivalent cut from the rest of the government’s discretionary budget. Trump as recently as last week highlighted a statistic that 94 million Americans are out of the labor force, which compares with 7.6 million who are actually listed as unemployed by the Labor Department. The broader figure includes retirees, students and people caring for children or loved ones, in addition to prime-age Americans who have dropped out of the workforce for other reasons.

Last week, eight Senate Democrats sent the White House a letter asking for a commitment to maintain the independence and integrity of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which produces the employment data. A White House official responded that the administration respects the independence of the agency but wants the numbers to be as accurate and reflective of economic conditions as possible.

Natalie Strom, a White House spokeswoman, on Monday pointed to a January comment from Press Secretary Sean Spicer regarding Trump’s approach to the unemployment numbers and other economic data: “He’s not focused on statistics as much as he is on whether the American people are doing better as a whole.”

‘Reliable Data’

“We need reliable data, and going all the way back to studies that Michael Boskin headed up a generation ago, there’s been a concern in our profession about investment in government statistics,” Hubbard, dean of Columbia University’s business school in New York, said to reporters at an economics conference. “It’s not sexy, the public is hardly riveted on whether the employment report has wiggles in it, but I think we all are.”

Boskin, a Stanford University economics professor and CEA chairman under President George H.W. Bush, headed a congressional commission created in 1995 to study the consumer price index.

Hubbard also served as economic adviser for the presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush.

Douglas Elmendorf, a former Congressional Budget Office director who was appointed by Democrats, said at the same event on Monday that it would be “unfortunate” if elected leaders criticized government statistics as they were published, because doing so would “degrade the value of government service in people’s minds.”

--With assistance from Shannon Pettypiece

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