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FT journalists - listen to your own statistician!

by Jerome a Paris Thu Apr 20th, 2006 at 12:00:54 PM EST

The FT is sophisticated enough to have its very own Statistics editor, Simon Briscoe, who does a great job every day to bring to light interesting numbers and present them in a way which is usually both illuminating and mathematically correct (i.e. not misleading).

He had written about the French youth unemployment rate before [link added], and provides a graph with the same information again, that bit which we have outlined before here: the 22% number widely quoted is indeed the "unemployment rate", but it does not say that 22% of young French people are unemployed, but 22% of active young people are unemployed.

UPDATE: Alex Harrowell over at A fistful of Euros has insightful commentary on the topic.


A eurotribber (after writing to the FT to ask them why they ignored the work of their own statistics editor, but not getting any reply) wrote to him to ask why his work was ignored by his colleagues, and here is his reply, copied with his kind permission:

"Thank you for taking the time to send the email.

I haven't changed my mind. As to whether I am being ignored, who knows?!

My point was not really that the 22% figure was wrong, just that a subtlely different denominator gives a very different impression. I try to encourage people to look at numbers a little more critically - that way we might get better justified and more appropriate policies. At least when I get feedback like yours - and I am pleased to say plenty of other feedback on this article, including from policy makers - I feel I am making progress.

It is true that some people do not like statistics as they might undermine their story. I would not say that is the case with my colleagues, of course, but when a number has achieved such status as this 22% figure, it is hard for journalists to break from it.

Anyway I keep plugging away and will hopefully have a small chart in the back page Lex column tomorrow [the one now posted above] reiterating the difference."

Simon Briscoe

My experience of Briscoe's numbers is indeed that they provide usually interesting and often unexpected information in a clear way. It is nevertheless sad to see that his facts are ignored by his colleagues when they fly against "common wisdom", and it shows that we still have a lot of work in front of us...

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Urgh. I have the impression sometimes he has the office under the stairs and all the columnists stay far, far away.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Thu Apr 20th, 2006 at 12:11:40 PM EST
As clear and concise demonstration of the numbers as I have seen--with the exception of Jerome, of course.  

C'est un miracle.

by andrethegiant on Thu Apr 20th, 2006 at 12:40:56 PM EST
Yes it's good to see the clarification getting more visibility.  But as cge points out in a comment  on the Actual facts about the French labor market, both numbers have relavance.  It's just important that discussions on the employment/unemployment issue do not ignore either statistic, is it not?
by wchurchill on Thu Apr 20th, 2006 at 01:13:44 PM EST
cge seems to exist to recycle conventional wisdom.

Changes in the unemployment rate have relevance. Absolute numbers, not so much. So, to say that 1 in 12 French youngsters want a job and can't  get one is one thing. To say that 1 in 4 can't is another.  It's normally the latter we hear, not the first.

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Thu Apr 20th, 2006 at 01:24:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Ah nice labour statistics graphs! What a pleasure!! I feel right at home now.

Thanks Jerome, Simon and others for continuing to plug away at getting these numbers back into their right context. Now we're just got to get this to the front page of newspapers more often.

by Alexandra in WMass (alexandra_wmass[a|t]yahoo[d|o|t]fr) on Thu Apr 20th, 2006 at 01:18:23 PM EST
Article deconstruction (vol. 4): French farce (where I quoted Briscoe's earlier article)
It's the same fight
Triple Play (US articles on French protests)
IHT sees the light on French student protests
French employment and unemployment
Article deconstruction (vol. 5): French fear


In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Thu Apr 20th, 2006 at 04:26:04 PM EST
and a review: http://plus.maths.org/issue35/reviews/book2/index.html

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Thu Apr 20th, 2006 at 04:34:59 PM EST
I'm the eurotribber who wrote to Simon Briscoe, specifically I referred to the fact that in the Financial Times for 1th April, there were two articles and an editorial which all used the 22% figure (with minor variations) for French youth unemployment, with no qualifications.

The review of his book gave credit to an academic - often unsung heroes who give a lot of free help and advice to journalists and others (I'm an ex-academic):

"I followed up the reference given, and was kindly supplied with recent figures by the source quoted in the book, Monica Threlfall of Loughborough University [ m.threlfall at lboro.ac.uk ].

Youth unemployment 2002

Participation in labour market:  UK  62.5%,  France 36.9%

Unemployed ratio/population: UK 6.8%,  France  7.0%

Unemployed rate/labour force: UK 10.9%,  France 18.9%

As Briscoe says, having so many young people in employment is arguably a policy success for France, and a success the UK government is anxious to emulate, with a target of getting 50% (up from the current 40%) of young people into third level education by 2009."

http://plus.maths.org/issue35/reviews/book2/index.html

I also wrote to the BBC, the Guardian and to The Independent's correspondent in France, John Lichfield, about the uncritical use of the 22% figure. No response from the latter. But Ashley Seager, Guardian Economics Editor replied saying:

"I had in fact looked into the issue of French in further education and was informed by several experts that the ILO figures I was quoting adjust for those kinds of things. I also think that if French youth unemployment were genuinely as low as the Briscoe piece claims, the French government would have jumped on those figures long ago. "

I put the latter point to Briscoe, who commented:

"I suspect they either "blindly" took the standard data off the ILO or other website and looked no further or perhaps they needed to portray their situation as a crisis in order to hope to get through an unpopular policy?"

Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice.

by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Fri Apr 21st, 2006 at 07:23:47 AM EST
Did he say what experts? Maybe they'd be willing to explain it to us.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Fri Apr 21st, 2006 at 12:09:36 PM EST
[ Parent ]
An expert is someone you believe knows more than you about things, which makes me despair of The Guardian if that is their Economics "expert".

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Apr 21st, 2006 at 12:23:20 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I worry: these things are arcane and I'm only dabbling.

I just checked the definition: it doesn't correct at all.

And I hadn't realised that the stats on http://laborsta.ilo.org/ are freely available. Look at that ....

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Fri Apr 21st, 2006 at 12:32:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Excellent, Ted in Paris ;)

Ashley Seager's justification is extraordinary for an Economics Correspondent. He admits to using (and emphasizing, because he's done as much if not more of it as other journalists) the one-in-four number on hearsay ("several experts..."), and on absence of counter-spin from a government that, in the circumstances, was spinning frantically the same way as he was...

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri Apr 21st, 2006 at 12:48:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]
If I'm looking at the right Ashley Seager article here are the numbers he uses:
His [Dominique de Villepin] motivation was clear: to try to do something about France's chronic youth unemployment, which is running at 23%, rising to 50% among the children of immigrants in the suburbs that burnt last summer. Unemployment among the whole population is 9.2%, almost double the rate in Britain. Employment levels are also very low in France, at 64% of the workforce, compared with a record high of 72% in Britain, on internationally standardised numbers.

I am amazed by Ashley Seager's, Guardian Economics Editor, statement:
"I had in fact looked into the issue of French in further education and was informed by several experts that the ILO figures I was quoting adjust for those kinds of things. I also think that if French youth unemployment were genuinely as low as the Briscoe piece claims, the French government would have jumped on those figures long ago. "

It just doesn't make any sense ILO figures allow for international comparisons but you need to include the labor force participation rate into the comparison so you know what percentage of the total population is used for the unemployment and employment statistics.  In the case of adults in labor markets that are mostly based on the formal sector the labor force participation rate (that is the number of people who are looking for work or currently employed) is usually pretty high but in the case of youth or in countries with large informal sectors or subsistence farming sectors it's key to doing any analysis of unemployment/employment data.

by Alexandra in WMass (alexandra_wmass[a|t]yahoo[d|o|t]fr) on Mon Apr 24th, 2006 at 01:00:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It's astonishingly ignorant.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Mon Apr 24th, 2006 at 01:03:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
yes I'm rather baffled.
by Alexandra in WMass (alexandra_wmass[a|t]yahoo[d|o|t]fr) on Mon Apr 24th, 2006 at 02:51:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Oh. I'm not: it's about par for the course. Checking facts is hard work.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Mon Apr 24th, 2006 at 03:37:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Are you being ironic? It's not about checking facts as much as just understanding how unemployment is measured.
by Alexandra in WMass (alexandra_wmass[a|t]yahoo[d|o|t]fr) on Tue Apr 25th, 2006 at 11:40:09 AM EST
[ Parent ]
No, I'm not being ironic. Though I think I just went into shock: you seem to think that journalists need domain knowledge to write about stuff. They're like managers: a good journalist can write about anything.

More seriously, if this is the standard of knowledge possessed by a senior economic journalist on one of the serious papers I absolutely despair. It took me a few moments to check the definitions on the ILO site. I'm not a domain expert, but I can read.

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Tue Apr 25th, 2006 at 11:45:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I agree journalists are about researching a topic they may know nothing about. I just had assumed that understanding how unemployment is measured is part of an economics correspondent's basic background knowledge.

However, I'll admit that I may be biased since I work on unemployment issues and that economic correspondents have plenty of other economic related items to keep in their heads. Nevertheless, as you point out, the ILO does give fairly clear definitions of how it's measures are calculated.

by Alexandra in WMass (alexandra_wmass[a|t]yahoo[d|o|t]fr) on Tue Apr 25th, 2006 at 12:31:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think that in this case part of it is that people think they know what unemployment means. Most people citing the statistic don't.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Tue Apr 25th, 2006 at 12:46:59 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I agree. It's one of those unknown unknowns unlike the known unknowns.
by Alexandra in WMass (alexandra_wmass[a|t]yahoo[d|o|t]fr) on Tue Apr 25th, 2006 at 01:58:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I missed this useful exchange of comments until now. I think we have to realize that "economics" or "business" journalists are (like TV newscasters) there to tell us stories, not to inform us or bring us checked facts.

I've complained about Ashley Seager in the past, and again on the article you link to, Alexandra. The whole thing is appalling. Yet Seager's response to Ted Welch (see above) shows he does not care.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Thu Apr 27th, 2006 at 11:30:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]


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