Whose economy?: on measuring unemployment

Things may get better. They very well could get worse. But, more likely than not, they’ll stay about the same. And, as we all know or at least as we ought to know, that status quo is pretty damn bad. By things being bad, I most certainly do not mean the state of “the economy” as it’s commonly spoken of (i.e., the business cycle in its ebb). The fact is that most economic indicators have little or nothing to do with the actual ability of the majority of the population to pay for what they need.

The Dow Jones is still hovering at 10,000–10 times its value only 30 years ago!–but the financial health of corporations has little to do with the financial health of actual people when those corporations enhance their balance sheets by hiring fewer and fewer of us and paying less and less to those they do employ. For better or worse, corporations are the primary engines of our economy today and so the majority of macroeconomic indicators (growth, GDP, etc.) refer to what is good or bad for corporate profits as opposed to actual people who do things like eat, sleep, work, and live (when they can afford it).

Of all the economic indicators which we have, the one which comes the closest to telling us something about the actual conditions faced by living, breathing human beings (as opposed to fictitious entities like corporations) is unemployment. No wonder the government and the corporations have colluded in order to water down the very definition of “unemployment” so as to bamboozle the public into not seeing what is right in front of their eyes everyday of their lives: just how few people are actually put to work by “the economy.” As an indicator cooked-up by the most egregiously irresponsible group of social scientists (economists) on behalf of their corporate and governmental masters, “unemployment” (per its official International Labor Organization definition) refers only to a very special class of unemployed people: (1) those who are at home during the middle of the day when surveyors come by and (2) those who have actively submitted a job application within the last 4 weeks.

The first condition is perhaps understandable enough given the difficulties of social science research—a sample has to be collected in one manner or another and the methodology one uses will all but undoubtedly skew the results in one way or another. Rigorous social scientists recognize this fact and thus attempt to counterbalance the distortion created by using a given sampling method by trying other methods and seeing if they encounter different results. When selecting alternate methods of sampling, the rigorous social scientist must above all else ask the following questions: (1) who am I leaving out? and (2) what other methods of sampling could I use which might have a better chance of finding them? Collecting unemployment numbers by going door to door all but excludes the possibility of counting persons who can no longer afford a roof over their heads and it is not unreasonable to think that such persons are considerably more likely than the general population to be unemployed. How might the blindspot created by this sampling method be made somewhat more visible? If our goal really is to find the total number of unemployed people in the country, it would make a good deal of sense to add the number of homeless people—at the very least those of working age who are able-bodied and of sound mind—to the number of “unemployed” collected by the door-to-door method.

However, even adding this much needed supplement would still almost undoubtedly result in a figure which underestimates total unemployment. How many persons who cannot work because of mental and/or physical ailments got that way because they did not have the money, the routine, and/or the feeling of contribution that jobs can at times provide? Doesn’t the population of prisoners artificially lower the total number of unemployed persons as a greater than average number of prisoners would likely be out of work if they were on the outside? For that matter, how many people would never have gone behind bars if they had access to employment in the first place? Factors like these would be difficult—if not necessarily impossible—to measure as they directly challenge the assumption that the phenomenon of unemployment can be treated solely as a dependent variable. That is to say, for a variety of different reasons, lack of employment can itself be a factor responsible for taking away your ability to work. Science often has a particularly difficult time measuring this aspect of phenomena so perhaps on this point the economists can be excused and/or condemned according to one’s feelings regarding scientific endeavors in general. However, economists have no excuse for failing to collect a more representative sample of the unemployed which would include, for instance, sane able-bodied persons without housing. This failure can only be regarded as bad science and it is only one example among many of why, as I claimed above, economists are the most irresponsible of all social scientists.

For another example of the scientific irresponsibility that is readily becoming a trait more distinguishing of the economist than even his or her subject matter, all we need do is turn to the other condition stipulated in the official definition of unemployment: only persons who have submitted a job application within the last 4 weeks count as “unemployed.” Now, this is directly counterintuitive. If you ask the average working-class person to tell you when it is that someone stops being unemployed, he or she would probably (1) laugh at you and (2) tell you that a person is no longer unemployed when that person gets a job. How many Americans actually know what the official ILO definition of unemployment is and how many of them would find such a definition ludicrous upon finding it out?

Surely, there is a portion of American society which is aware of this definition and which does not object to it—the “educated” portion of the population. Why does this sector of the public stand for something so counterintuitive? Because they’ve been told that it makes sense by experts! In this case, “educated” persons are those who believe what they’re told rather than their own common sense. Sure, it sounds funny to say that a person who hasn’t applied for a job recently shouldn’t count as unemployed, but economists are experts who use lots of complex mathematical models so they must know what they’re talking about! There must be some valid scientific explanation for something so patently counterintuitive, right?

Ask an economist why unemployment is measured in this fashion and you get an answer like the following: “Well, if someone hasn’t submitted an application in the last 4 weeks, then he or she must not be seriously looking for a job and people that don’t want jobs aren’t really a part of the labor force, so it wouldn’t make sense to count them.” But wait. Isn’t it entirely possible that the economy was in fact so bad that there were no jobs worth applying for? And, wouldn’t such an instance represent a more extreme form of the very phenomenon that one was trying to identify in the first place—i.e., unemployment? What possible explanation could there be for designing a measurement which dismisses the most intense cases of the very thing that one is trying to measure? Wouldn’t it make more sense if extreme cases of unemployment counted more than less extreme cases rather not at all? It certainly would, but only insofar as one is actually interested in measuring what one claims to be measuring. In other words, as an indicator, “unemployment” is intentionally designed not to accurately reflect the true state of unemployment within the economy. This is not just bad science. It is deeply deeply mendacious. Or to use a simpler word: bullshit.

However, to say that something is a lie is not to say that it is meaningless. In fact, we can learn a great deal from the fictions we tell ourselves, perhaps more than from the obvious truths—though these often amount to much the same thing albeit viewed from different perspectives. One tells a lie for much the same reason that one tells the truth: in order to convince others to help you do something. Why tell this lie concerning unemployment? Who is being convinced of what and why?

The public is being convinced that unemployment is lower than they see it in their everyday experience. Why is it important to convince people that unemployment is lower than they know it to be? Because, generally speaking, people that can’t find jobs and thus can’t pay their bills see that as a bad thing. To provide people with confirmation that their situation is not unique—that many many others face similar struggles, that a substantial percentage of these struggles never really goes away even in the best of times, that the fact that you as an individual can’t find a job is more a result of the way that the economy is structured rather than your own bad luck or lack of ingenuity or effort—would come dangerously close to providing those same people with a clear and objective basis for demanding a different sort of bargain with the wealthiest 1% who control “the economy.”

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About 11again

Used to be an academic... now I'm a washed up academic. I like cooking, blues music, black writers, and morally compromised people of all persuasions.
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2 Responses to Whose economy?: on measuring unemployment

  1. Pingback: Stories from LA City Hall | Once, Again

  2. Pingback: Unemployment and Incarcertation | Once, Again

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