Friday, August 6, 2010


The Obama Administration's Labor Department has been releasing unemployment numbers that have been consistently troubling and considered poor news for the US economy: according to the most recent data, the official unemployment rate released by the Department stands at 9.6%, which is its way of saying that 9.6% of the 'labour force' is currently out of work.

Somewhere along the line, someone decided we needed another team of superheroes to root for, so they coined the term labour force. I imagine millions of people, resumes at the ready, eager to charge out into the world and get employed!, briefcases, tool kits and aprons being their weapons of choice.

The reality is just a tad more prosaic. If we all want to practice a little more integrity and intellectual honesty in thinking about and dealing with the unemployment crisis that is going on right now all over this supposedly First World nation, then we have to survey the landscape without blinders and accept the situation as it is. 

The labour 'force' is not really a force at all. It's something more akin to a large, inert mass. The only reason that Mr.Obama and his administration can bandy about numbers like '9.6 percent' is because that number does not include the vast, slumbering army of human beings who are no longer looking for work. If those people were included in the great Force, what would the national unemployment rate look like?

The National Jobs For All Coalition has published research showing that if those who have ceased to search for work were included in the unemployment figures, in addition to those who only work part time because they are unable to find full time work, the official unemployment rate would be 18.2 percent, almost double the current figure. To put it another way, instead of saying that 14.6 million people are unable to find gainful employment, we would have to raise that number to 29.1 million. 

Those extra millions that are not usually included in the official numbers fall into a relatively new category: 'hidden unemployment'. It is astonishing to consider that, even with the uncounted now being counted, we are still not taking into account the millions of people who have full time work yet are not paid a living wage, have no job benefits and work in horrible conditions. But that is for another day. The number of real unemployed is disastrous enough.

So why are these people not included in job statistics? Why does President Obama not address the situation, compassionate as he is, preferring instead to talk of an 'improving economy' that is slowly 'adding jobs'?

The obvious, and clearly correct, answer is political considerations. Of course the President has to paint as rosy a picture as possible in order to stay in power. But to truly see the scope of the problem, one must see the pattern that has emerged in the rhetoric and focus of all political leaders for many decades now. The issue of poverty in the United States has not and will not be spoken of, not in any kind of authentic, meaningful way. The main cause of that poverty, the ability to find consistent work paying a living wage, would therefore also be off the table.

Economists like John Maynard Keynes, together with FDR among others, believed in the idea of Full Employment, a term we never hear anymore, either from our political leaders or the corporate media that currently monopolizes our air waves. Although full employment was never close to being achieved, it was a unifying idea that had support for a time, and policies were enacted in an attempt to bring the American society, so devastated by unemployment during the Depression, closer to that reality. That idea has long since been eradicated from all political consciousness and what we have left is an acceptance of a society where tens of millions and counting will never find meaningful work with a wage that gives them the opportunity for an improving quality of life through decent living conditions and a high quality education for them or their children.

We now hear politicians talk of the problems within the job market being 'cyclical'. The cynical ignorance inherent in this kind of thinking and rhetoric is breathtaking. Anybody who has witnessed the massive, systematic laying off of our blue collar workforce over the last thirty years by hugely profitable companies knows of the great lie being told to us. Anyone who was watching closely while politicians, bought by multinational corporations, allowed for the exploitation of foreign workers and the termination of local ones in the name of 'free trade agreements' would also be aware of the reality. Finally, any citizen who wanders through the streets of US cities, witnessing the staggering number of the homeless and indolent in addition to the vast wastelands of Third World neighbourhoods would also have trouble believing that high unemployment was 'cyclical'.

It's time to accept the fact that large scale poverty and unemployment here in the US is not cyclical, it is structural. What do we do with the millions of under-educated people who want to work? Can we educate and 'retrain' them all? Of course not. How do we replace the gigantic portion of manufacturing, agricultural and other blue collar jobs that are never coming back? Will we continue to be content to allow that mass of 'insignificants' to remain hidden? Simply ignore the problem until it is pushing against our back gate, clamouring to get in?

We need new ideas and a new political consciousness that tells the true story of this country in this moment. It will require a massive downgrading of our defense spending. It will require a huge tax hike on the stock market, with buyers and sellers paying a tax on every transaction. It will mean that polluters will pay for every molecule of carbon they pump into our atmosphere, as well as all of us paying into the public fund every time we fill up our cars, until we get so sick and tired of paying for gas that we start to vote for improved public transportation systems, systems that will hire hundreds of thousands of people. It will mean that our governments federal, state and local start to think about ways to hire people that improve the conditions on this planet, from environmental cleanup and protection to being paid an effective wage in order to effectively teach more of our children and adults.

But let's begin with seeing the problem as it is. Realism does not have to mean pessimism. Write to your local congressperson, senator, city council. If you believe that your political leaders need to make a good faith attempt to solve these problems, or at least raise consciousness about them, tell them so.

I believe Barack Obama to be a compassionate force for good. But he also needs to know that he can't take my support for granted. We need to be on the lookout for political leaders who don't accept a band-aid, an aspirin and a good lie down as solutions to chronic social problems that have this country and a large part of its populace on its knees.

Picture: Cutbacks on essential infrastructure, such as street lights. Read this sad and disturbing article in
              today's New York Times.

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant! And so sad and frustrating.......keep telling it like it is Marc, at least that's doing something..unlike many in our world.
    I love you