This past Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) announced that the nation's unemployment rate had dipped to 7.8% -- the first time it had gone below 8% in four years. In its report, the Labor Department announced that employers had added nearly 115,000 jobs in the previous month. Buoyed by the news, the New York Stock Exchange rose some 66 points, reaching a five-year high of 13,641; likewise, the S&P 500 reached its five-year high, closing up 8 points at 1,469. Meanwhile, the NASDAQ closed at 3,136.19, a twelve-year high. (By way of comparison on January 20, 2009, the day Barack Obama took the oath of office, the Dow Jones closed at 7,949; the S&P was at 805.22, and the NASDAQ 1,476.42 This past Friday's close represents -- respectively -- gains of 58.3% 54.8% and an astounding 112.4%.)
Predictably, both the Obama White House and the Democratic National Committee were upbeat, seeing the BLS report as a sign that although there is obviously much more progress to be made, the nation's economy is moving in the right direction. Again predictably, progressive economists and partisan pundits opined that the report would likely help compensate for what many saw as the president's lackluster performance at the first presidential debate. The upbeat report, they suggested, might dampen whatever political bounce Romney acquired as a result of his debate performance.
(A sad side note: the fact that I -- along with just about every other pundit have used the term "performance" to describe last Wednesday's encounter between Obama and Romney, speaks volumes for how debased and unenlightening political discourse has become in this country. Most pundits reviewed this so-called debate in the same manner that Janet Maslin or Richard Corliss would review the latest film; paying vastly more attention to mien than to message. Well, as the old Hollywood expression goes, "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach; and for those who aren't even capable of teaching, they become critics . . .)
Just as predictably, the Republican political establishment saw virtually nothing positive or redeeming in the latest jobs report. Governor Romney issued a statement which said in part, "This is not what a real recovery looks like." To his credit, the former Massachusetts governor did not join the burgeoning conspirators' chorale, which accused both the White House and the Bureau of Labor Statistics of engaging in a pernicious conspiracy of numbers doctoring -- of issuing a phony report. Jack Welch, the former chief executive officer of General Electric breathed life into this latest conspiracy when he went on Twitter to accuse the president's team of lowering the unemployment rate to 7.8% for the sole purpose of giving him a boost. "Unbelievable jobs numbers . . . These Chicago guys will do anything . . . can't debate so change numbers," Welch Tweeted. The formerly sober-sided Welch's charge was then picked up by, among others South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham and Florida Representative Allen ("There are at least 80 card-carrying Communists in Congress") West.
Making the rounds of the Sunday morning talk shows, Newt Gingrich opined that the American people are "losing respect for Washington" and simply don't believe the economy is improving, no matter what a jobs report says.
That no self-respecting Republican has said anything positive or hopeful about the latest jobs figures is understandable; it is, after all, in the very nature of politics to only say good things about your own team. However, to contend that these figures are nothing more than the product of a grossly unethical, immoral, and illegal conspiracy -- that's a horse of a different color. For here, we are racing headlong around a surreal track of treachery -- the same track whose mile markers include among others, "Birtherism," "Death Panels," "Acorn," "Fast and Furious," "the Cloward-Piven Strategy," and, at one time, "Vince Foster."
To be certain a segment of the American public has been uncovering -- and occasionally believing in -- pernicious conspiracies ever since the days of the Salem Witch Trials. Many believed both the American Revolution and the War of 1812 to be a conspiracy promulgated by the either the Masons or Bavarian Illuminati (some thought they were one and the same); many believed that the Panic of 1837 was caused by a cabal of Irish Catholics who were digging a tunnel under the Atlantic in order to connect the Vatican to America's East Coast; early twentieth century foes of the Federal Reserve claimed that it was the brainchild of a none-too secret society made up of, among others, the Schiffs, Warbergs, Rothschilds and Rosenwalds. Closer to our own time, there are people who firmly believe that the assassination of JFK, the lunar landing, the so-called "Philadelphia Experiment," the "Men in Black," and 9/11 are all part and parcel of far-flung government conspiracies. Why just the other day someone told me that Osama bin Laden is still alive and well and being paid by Barack Obama to keep a low profile!
The truth of the matter is, pulling off a successful government conspiracy is next to impossible. As in the case of last week's labor statistics, there are simply too many bureaucrats who -- in the words of G. Gordon Liddy" -- " . . . and incompetent and can't keep their mouths shut" in order for a conspiracy to succeed. Moreover, the BLS is made up of perhaps the wonkiest, least partisan of all civil servants in the entire Federal Government. There are hundreds of safeguards in place which make it virtually impossible to "cook" the figures. Then too, if the Obama White House really wanted to make the jobs picture look better, they likely would have done it before, not after the first debate . . .
Why do people believe in highly improbable conspiracies? Part of it deals with what Scientific American writer Michael Shermer calls paternicity (the tendency to find meaningful patterns in random noise) and agenticity (the bent to believe the world is controlled by invisible intentional agents). According to Shermer, "Conspiracy theories connect the dots of random events into meaningful patterns and then infuse those patterns with intentional agency."
OK, so there will always be people who believe in conspiracies. Or, as novelist Benjamin Disraeli wrote in a long-forgotten 1844 novel entitled Coningsby, "The world is governed by very different personages to what is imagined by those who are not behind the scenes. "( As a side note, this quote would be used by the forger of the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion to "prove" the international Jewish conspiracy to enslave the world . . .)
While perhaps we can understand -- if not completely forgive -- the petty and the paranoid for seeing the world through the lens of conspiracy, what about those who promote conspiracy for political or monetary profit? To my way of thinking, they are traitors to reason, poisoners of the intellectual well.
I don't know if Allen West believes much of what he says -- that there are those 80 card-carrying Communists in Congress or that the president is enriching African Americans at the taxpayers expense. I would make a small wager that West doesn't believe much of what he says, but propounds these notions in order to garner greater name recognition and votes. Then too, I don't know if Georgia Representative Dr. Paul Broun, M. D . really, truly believes that Evolution, the Big Bang Theory and Embryology are ". . . lies straight out of hell," or that the world, which he claims was created in six days, is no more than 9,000 years old. Perhaps he does, and that certainly is his right -- as much as I find his positions to be first-class head-scratchers.
In the end, the question is:
Which is worse: To believe in things which are inherently at odds with the past 200 years of human progress and scientific discovery, or to say things you really don't believe in order to garner publicity and win votes?
-2012 Kurt F. Stone