Brent Batten: Learn to expect the unexpected


As much as we like to think of ourselves as advanced, our quest for understanding frequently comes up short.

We can’t fully explain how the universe came into being. We’ve yet to find a cure for the common cold. No one really knows why the Kardashian sisters are famous.

You can add to the list the abject inability to guess what’s going on with unemployment. But we’re a plucky species, and by golly we keep on trying.

Consider news stories from recent months.

April 14, 2011 (Reuters) “New U.S. claims for unemployment benefits unexpectedly rose last week.”

April 28, 2011 (Bloomberg News) “New applications for unemployment benefits in the U.S. unexpectedly rose last week.”

May 5, 2011 (Bloomberg News) “Jobless claims in U.S. unexpectedly jump due to anomalies.”

May 26, 2011 (Bloomberg News) “Unemployment claims in the U.S. unexpectedly increased to 424,000 last week.

June 9, 2011 (Daily Mail) “More unexpectedly bad news today suggests the U.S. job market is still stalling.”

June 23, 2011 (Associated Press) U.S. unemployment claims unexpectedly rise as job market weakens.

July 12, 2011 (Bloomberg News) Asian stocks fell as U.S. unemployment unexpectedly increased, dimming the outlook for the global economic recovery and exporters’ earnings.

July 21, 2011 (Reuters) New claims for unemployment benefits rose more than expected last week.

For variety’s sake, every once in a while they change the language.

Aug. 12, 2010 (Associated Press) “First time claims for jobless benefits edged up, the Labor Department said Thursday. Analysts had expected a drop.”

July 8, 2011 (USA Today) “Employers added only 18,000 jobs in June, far fewer than economists expected.”

The phenomenon isn’t confined to the United States.

On May 29 of last year, the Daily Times of Pakistan wrote, “Japan’s unemployment rate rose unexpectedly.”

On Jan. 5, 2011 Bloomberg News reported, “German unemployment unexpectedly rose in December.”

Feb. 6, 2011, saw Bloomberg write, “U.K. unemployment claims unexpectedly rose in January.

Have you ever played roulette and bet red five times in a row only to have it come up black every time. Then you move your stack to black and sure enough, the ball lands on red?

The experts who predict unemployment figures can relate.

Sept. 2, 2010 (Associated Press) “Unemployment claims unexpectedly dip.”

March 3, 2011 (Bloomberg News) “Unemployment rate unexpectedly declines.”

April 2, 2011 (Bloomberg News) “U.S. unemployment rate unexpectedly dips to two-year low.”

Media organizations poll economists at banks and investment firms, asking them what they think unemployment is going to be in the coming weeks and months. These experts consider things like consumer spending, interest rates, inventories and energy prices. Then, apparently, they close their eyes and throw a dart at a bunch of numbers on a wall.

On July 7, USA Today ran an AP story under the headline, “Why economists see a stronger second half for 2011.” One suspects consumer confidence didn’t suddenly spike upward as a result.

The economy is a complex system with innumerable moving parts. People who have spent their entire careers studying it, the experts the media consultant, can’t reliably predict what it is going to do week to week.

That should serve as a warning to politicians and bureaucrats who think they can fix it by spending hundred billion dollars here or telling a manufacturer to build a plant there.

But, and not unexpectedly, it doesn’t.

Connect with Brent Batten at

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