This editorial originally appeared in the Fayetteville Observer.
Untruths, as the still-ubiquitous Mark Twain reminds us regularly, can take three forms: "Lies, damned lies and statistics."
The most pernicious prevarication undoubtedly comes in a statistical format, as we observe almost daily, and especially in election years.
We're already getting an earful this year as Gov. Pat McCrory campaigns for re-election on the contention that our North Carolina economy is very much on the upswing - a phenomenon that he calls the "Carolina Comeback."
The numbers have gotten steadily better as we've emerged from the Great Recession, which slammed this and most other states in 2008 and 2009. Every week, McCrory is showing up in one community or another to tout the opening of a new business that will add dozens, hundreds and sometimes even thousands of jobs, all of them paying well. So the comeback must be real - right?
Not so fast, economist John Quinterno says. At the behest of the think tank Think NC First, Quinterno analyzed the real numbers of jobs and pay, and he also put them into the context of the trends that were occurring at the same time.
Quinterno, who runs a research firm in Chapel Hill and writes frequently on economic and policy issues, is also a visiting lecturer at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. What's missing from the "Carolina Comeback" narrative, he says, is context. "One can say, for example, that the state's labor market posted a double-digit rate of job growth," he writes, "but if that rate is insufficient to keep pace with an expanding workforce, it is a hollow accomplishment." And it is indeed hollow, because this is a growing state, and our workforce is expanding faster than the jobs those workers want.
While our unemployment rate is declining nicely, that's only one measure. Our underemployment rate - which includes people who are forced to work fewer hours than they want and those who have gotten discouraged and given up looking for work - remains 1.3 times greater than it was before the recession.
What's more, most of those new jobs aren't high-paying, but are more likely to be service-industry jobs that pay poorly. After adjusting for inflation, Quinterno says, the average hourly wage has fallen from pre-recession levels for every group except the top 10 percent. Also after adjusting for inflation, median household income in North Carolina has fallen by about $4,500 since 2007.
Quinterno's report goes on for pages, the theme unchanged: Like the rest of America, we are still seeking recovery from the recession's setbacks. No shame there - we're all in the same boat.
So how about avoiding the lies, damned lies and statistics, and talking frankly instead about how we find real recovery?