Gallup CEO Jim Clifton made a huge splash this week by dismissing the official unemployment rate of 5.6 percent as a “Big Lie,” because it “cruelly overlooks the suffering of the long-term and often permanently unemployed as well as the depressingly underemployed.” He’s hardly the first to call shenanigans on the unemployment number, nor is such criticism a new feature of the Obama era.
It has become especially pointed over the past six years for reasons Clifton touched upon: the official U-3 unemployment rate, the one that makes headlines, has come down from its peak in the early Obama years largely because people gave up looking for work and dropped off the report entirely. Also because full-time jobs are getting mulched into a thick sludge of less-desirable part-time and temporary work, driven by factors such as ObamaCare’s strong disincentives against offering full-time employment. A lot of people with rather marginal forms of employment are cheerfully tossed into the “household survey” component of the monthly Bureau of Labor Statistics report, making the national jobless picture look considerably less dire than it really is.
Also, although Clifton doesn’t discuss it specifically, there’s the matter of all those huge, gaseous promises President Obama made when he grabbed a trillion dollars for a “stimulus” bill with highly debatable results. Obama’s actual results have been considerably worse than what he claimed unemployment would be without the stimulus package. An awful lot of that money drained away without noticeable effect – sometimes without a clear accounting of exactly where it went. There’s not a lot of bragging to be done about getting a heavily doctored unemployment rate down to 5.6% after nearly doubling the national debt, especially since the thin shell of this “recovery” keeps cracking into flakes of troubling economic news. But brag Obama has, with very little criticism from the media that relays his rhetoric. That’s probably what pushed Clifton over the line into op-ed eruption, and because of his prominence, long-standing criticisms of how the government models unemployment are getting renewed attention.
A good deal of Clifton’s ire is directed at the press, which both the White House and Wall Street have keen interest in using to manipulate popular opinion about the economy. It is sometimes argued that since much of what happens in the economy is a matter of perception, it’s useful to spread optimism. Gloom and doom are a self-reinforcing death spiral, making people nervous about precisely the consumption, investment, and entrepreneurial decisions that would spark a recovery. Every president accuses his opposition of “talking down the economy” at election time, or argues that his contributions to economic health have not been properly appreciated.
This all boils down to a tussle over the jobs picture, because that’s the economic indicator most directly relevant to all Americans. They’re not foolish for thinking this way. An economy that doesn’t produce good jobs is not very appealing to most of us, no matter what else might be said to recommend it. Even people who haven’t studied economic theory understand that if the economy is truly healthy, a great number of people will be joyously participating in it. Finding a good job, and earning the money we need to cover our needs, with a good bit of left over to fulfill our ambitions and desires, is the way most of us participate.
Does that sound like a fair working definition of a “good job?” It’s not enough just to cover your needs, which is where the welfare state falls down. Giving people what they need, while depriving them of the opportunity to fulfill ambition and desire, is a toxic formula for resentment and strife. Human ambition cannot be rendered numb with infusions of welfare cash. When people cannot realize their ambitions through work and sacrifice, they turn elsewhere, and the results are not pretty.
The fulfillment of ambitions and desires calls for time and energy, as well as money. Working yourself to death earning a pile of money you can’t enjoy spending isn’t how most people would define the American Dream. Ambition and desire wither in the absence of freedom and opportunity. The burden of the modern hyper-regulatory state crushes dreams large and small, while siphoning productive capital away from those who earn it – and know best how to invest it – into the clutches of a parasitic, inefficient, greedy, and frankly stupid political class. People are made to feel guilty about their ambitions, at the command of politicians who claim they can “invest” collective resources more wisely. A great deal of the energy powering our political system is generated by pitting groups of Americans against each other in cultural and political battles.
A strong supply of good jobs would make us all feel more independent, usher a greater number of us into capitalism as investors, and leave us with less time or patience for the class warfare our rulers need to stay in power. No wonder they’d rather baffle us with B.S. employment reports while relentlessly grinding the middle class down into government dependency.
As National Review’s Jim Geraghty observes, while discussing the great middle-class realignment toward Republicans in the late Obama years, “The political scientists – and admittedly, a big chunk of [the middle-class] demographic – are only now starting to realize that despite Obama’s incessant invocation of the ‘middle-class economics’ catch-phrase, the modern Democratic party doesn’t have that much to offer those $50,000- to $100,000-per-year voters. When you’re poor, politicians speak about you with great sympathy and set up massive, often-inefficient federal programs to help you. When you’re rich, politicians grovel at your feet during fundraisers. But if you’re in that $50,000 to $100,000 demographic, you have too much money for sympathy but not enough money for influence.”
Exactly – and that’s a feature, not a bug, of Obamanomics. The goal is to smash the true middle class down into that sub-$50k group, where they can be fused into Taker/Makers who work hard at unsatisfying jobs, often at part-time wages, while still requiring hefty amounts of government assistance to prosper. When the Left contemplates a group with “too much money for sympathy but not enough money for influence,” it sees a target-rich environment. But a strong economy generating plenty of good jobs would be raising more people up into that category, rather than stranding its dwindling membership as sitting ducks for socialist rhetorical and policy pot-shots.
Our system won’t survive unless a lot more people climb into the true middle class, which is defined by its independence. It’s tough to be independent without a good job, no matter how loudly the Left shrieks that the best sort of “freedom” most people can hope for involves forcing others to pay for their necessities, relieving them of the burdens of responsibility.
And there you have the truth about jobs. A vibrant economy cannot be conjured into existence by handing carefully-massaged government reports to eager media courtiers, so they can write comeback narratives for politicians they like. Take note of how the unemployment rate started skittering down after unemployment benefits began running out, contrary to President Obama’s policy preference – there should be little doubt remaining that employment is not purely a supply phenomenon, shaped exclusively by the number of job applications handed out by rich people. There’s a demand component as well – it matters a great deal how ardently people seek to join the workforce.
In other words, it matters how strongly they seek independence. That’s the measure we should use for the health of our national economy: the independence of everyone from entry-level job seekers, to big-money interests who find a way to be profitable without using political connections or gobbling up handouts from the Treasury. A scheme to reduce unemployment to zero by spending tax money to “hire” everyone for government jobs (an idea seriously floated by leftists on occasion) would fail this test, because it would be lacking in independence, and would fall apart as the money to pay for such make-work jobs drained away. Only independence is sustainable – no, only independence thrives.