When the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.

Old Proverb.[1]

[A week ago I reminisced at length about my undergraduate years, the social structure in force at my school 50 years ago, and the reunion scheduled for this June. I framed the issues, but didn’t announce for sure whether I would attend.[2] Not that anyone should care, but I left that for today’s blog. Well, I’m not going; too many schedule conflicts. Now let’s move on to more interesting topics, like Government and national politics. Once again our Government has offended the Conservatives on AM Talk Radio and incited another national debate.]

What did the Government do? On Friday the Department of Labor released jobs data for the previous month, i.e. for March, and the media burst into flames. Unemployment for last month was reported at 7.6 %. This is good in that, while high, the number decreased from February, and, in fact, was the lowest recorded for many months.[3] So, in the view of many it supported the notion that the Administration was making progress in growing the economy, although not at a high rate.

Conservatives pundits were outraged. This wasn’t progress. In fact, the true facts are much worse. The liberal media weren’t doing their jobs. They should be pointing this out, and announcing that America is in decline. Why don’t the media report all of the facts, rather than just a few?

It’s certainly true that the Employment Situation Summary contained lots of data, and most media outlets didn’t go through it in any detail. The pdf version is 38 pages, and is replete with facts and statistics; the public’s not really interested in that sort of thing, is it? So are the media lazy, or just realistic? Frankly, I don’t know. But if you’re interested in the report, the whole thing, you can find it at http://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.nr0.htm  and yes, there will be another one for April; it’s scheduled for release on May 3. They come out every month.

Does the report as a whole indicate national decline? No, a single month of data really doesn’t demonstrate anything. Conservatives know that; after all, they’re the ones who tell us that we really don’t have enough proof that the globe is warming.[4] We need more data!

Nevertheless, there’s more to the story of March, 2013 than the media have reported. Let’s take, for example, the mystery of the disappearing unemployed. It seems that when the Labor Department computes unemployment, it doesn’t count all of the people who don’t work.

Why does this happen? Well, there’s the “official” unemployment rate, also known as the “U-3” index; then there are various other indices ranging up to and including “U-6,”[5] that track people who also don’t work, or are not fully employed. Why so many? Ask a statistician; I’m simply going to take you through the hierarchy:

  • U-3. How does one become unemployed? Well, start by having a job, then lose it. People in this situation are counted as unemployed so long as they are “actively seeking and available to work….”[6] Folks on a temporary layoff are also counted as unemployed, even if they’re not looking for a job.[7]
  • U-4. Then there are the workers who no longer look for a job, because they don’t think one is available. According to BLS these people are no longer considered to be unemployed, because they’re not looking; but they are counted as “discouraged” workers.[8]
  • U-5. Then there are the people who don’t look for a job, because they have other impediments. Transportation is not available, or not affordable, they need affordable child care to work, and that sort of thing. These are classified as people “marginally attached” to the labor force.[9]
  • U-6. And finally, there are the people employed part time for economic reasons. These are the visibly underemployed.[10]

Each index, because it includes more workers than the previous one, automatically shows a higher percentage of people affected. So, for example, while the U-3 index for March, 2013, showed an official unemployment rate of 7.6%, the U-6 index of unemployed, discouraged, marginal and underemployed workers stood at 13.9%. Was the Administration hiding this more negative figure? No, they published it along with the unemployment rate. If the popular media didn’t notice, then shame on them.  The data were available; it just required a little work to locate and understand them.

And what about the Conservatives who are saying that the employment situation is getting worse, not better? Well, a year ago the U-3 unemployment rate was 8.4%; this March it was 7.6%. And the U-6 rate?  Well, a year ago it was 14.8%. Today, as reported, it’s 13.9 %. Are these good numbers? Not particularly, but they’re improving. Is the economy dying? No.

And what about our media? The Conservatives have a good point here. Why can’t the media give us a more detail about these kinds of things? As it is, the viewing public gets so little information about the job situation, and most other economic issues, that they’re essentially blind most of the time. If the media can’t clarify this stuff, or won’t, then we may all wind up in the ditch.


[1] You can find this in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (ODQ) (6th Edition, 2004) at Proverbs, p. 634, n. 27. It’s from the 9th Century.

[2] Even we have some good memories of that time, but we’re not sure whether they’re real memories, or simply rationalizations coming from something like the Stockholm syndrome. For more about the Stockholm syndrome, go to Wikipedia and search that phrase, or simply click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stockholm_syndrome

[3] The unemployment rate was 8.4 % a year ago. See DOL, Bureau of Labor Statistics, The Employment Situation – March 2013 at Household Data, Table A-15 available at http://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.nr0.htm (cited hereafter as Table A-15)

[4] See Cato Institute, Michaels, Global-Warming Myth (May 16, 2008) at http://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/globalwarming-myth

[5] See Table A-15.

[6] See DOL, Bureau of Labor Statistics, The Employment Situation – March 2013 at Frequently Asked Questions about Employment and Unemployment Estimates (hereafter, FAQ), Question 6.

[7] See FAQ, Question 6. Also, “[t]here is no requirement or question relating to unemployment insurance benefits in the monthly survey.” In short, the BLS doesn’t require you to collect unemployment insurance in order to be counted as unemployed.

[8] See FAQ, Question 7.

[9] This is from a 2009 BLS Working Paper (No. 424), Haugen, Measures of Labor Underutilization from the Current Population Survey, at p. 10, available at http://www.bls.gov/osmr/pdf/ec090020.pdf Henceforth the paper will be cited as BLS Working Paper 424, at ___

[10] See BLS Working Paper 424, at p. 10.

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