Skepticism about state’s economy isn’t ‘naysaying’

This op-ed appeared in the Post Bulletin on June 23, 2017.

One thing the United States is not short of is economic statistics.

The Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics alone produces numbers from the Current Population Survey, Current Employment Statistics survey, the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey…

Last week, the Post Bulletin drew on one such release to announce that the “state’s economy continues to outshine neighbors” (June 15).

The Post Bulletin was reporting on data from the Bureau’s Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (QCEWS). This showed employment in Minnesota growing faster in 2016 than in the neighboring states. The Post Bulletin wrote, “Minnesota added 32,661 people to the employment rolls, compared with 15,420 in Wisconsin, which has roughly the same population as Minnesota.”

Sounds impressive. But these statistics all have different methodologies. Some cover different sections of the population. The QCEWS, for example, covers payroll employment. According to the Bureau, this excludes, among others, “proprietors (and) the unincorporated self-employed.” As a result of these differences in method, you frequently see differences in result.

According to the Bureau’s Local Area Unemployment Statistics, which covers total employment, Wisconsin added 15,485 jobs to Minnesota’s 10,840. While the unemployment rate in Minnesota edged up by 0.1 percentage point over 2016, that in Wisconsin fell by 0.2 percentage points.

No single data point will tell you the whole economic story. These data must be seen in a broader context of lack of new business creation; too few workers employed in high-tech industries; investment capital being thin on the ground; the state’s most productive residents leaving; persistent racial disparities which continue to hinder growth.

Furthermore, skepticism about the state’s economic prospects is not just “complaining, doomsday talk, and naysaying.” It is also the view of Minnesota’s official agencies. According to its most recent forecast, Minnesota Management and Budget expects personal income growth in the state to lag the national rate in every year to 2021. It also forecasts that job growth will lag the U.S. rate every year to 2019. The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development projects that up to 2024, employment will grow more slowly in a number of occupations, such as management, business and financial operations, and computer and mathematical occupations. These have historically provided the state with a competitive advantage.

Minnesota is a wonderful state with many advantages. But prosperity isn’t a given. Rather than patting ourselves on the back over this or that bit of data, we need to be constantly exploring new ways to improve the economic prospects for all in our state.

John Phelan is staff economist for the Center of the American Experiment, which is based in Golden Valley and is a conservative public policy organization.