Damnation through faint praise

I have some friends who are fond of a phrase, “damnation through faint praise.” I asked them where they heard it and they think they might have heard it someplace. It refers to praise so weak that it amounts to a rather severe condemnation.

And as I drive around Sonoma County, seeing the places where the environment has already been ravaged to make way for now vacant, some boarded-up buildings, including entire condominium complexes, office space, and lots of retail space, I have little good to say about the economy. Speaking for myself, the dot-com boom was the only time in my life when I felt like I was actually making a living: Before the bust, I made $50,000 per year as a technical writer for a company that finally shut down its final, prolonged incarnation recently. When I see all the prosperity that surrounds me, even here in Sonoma County, but particularly in the next county south, Marin, you’ll just have to forgive me for feeling like I’m just not asking for a whole lot. I now have a Master’s degree, I’m fifty years old, and I really think I’ve “paid my dues.”

New unemployment numbers for the United States came out this morning. I’ve long been suspicious of these, because I have seen how they manipulate the numbers. If you stop counting underemployed and discouraged workers, you can make the unemployment numbers a whole lot more politically palatable. Between a fact that a majority of people who seek to be employed remain so and a myth of self-reliance that encourages the unemployed to blame themselves, you can silence a whole lot of dissent, even among “discouraged workers.”

I went to Sonoma County Job Link for a “Hidden Job Market” workshop. They now count long-term employment as lasting two years. Where I have lived my entire life with the notion that making oneself into a salesperson to find a job should be a necessary, temporary, and rare aspect of life, they are now essentially saying that this is a permanent condition. In other words, it is a permanent condition for workers that they are to beg for work, to beg for their very survival.

So I’ve been picking apart the numbers, trying to get a better picture of what’s really going on. I assume that a lot of people who are no longer counted as being part of the labor force would in fact work if they could. I assume a lot of people who are working part time would work full time if they could. Old people may retire or die, young people may come into the workforce, but I assume that workers’ need for jobs remains relatively constant.

There are some weaknesses in what I do. Any measure of inflation is arbitrary so I haven’t at all been able to settle on a good way to measure wages. The numbers I’m using for population are labeled, “civilian, noninstitutionalized,” which means I don’t count people who have gone to prison, possibly for crimes they wouldn’t have committed if the economy made any sense, and I don’t consider those people signing up to be cannon fodder in the military, perhaps because this is the only opportunity they see. I assume there are other weaknesses in this analysis that I haven’t thought of.

So what do I see? For the first time in many months that mainstream economists have been heralding a decline in the rate that jobs were being lost, it shows up in my numbers. Mind you, fewer people still had jobs in July than in June, but for the first time since April 2008, the increase in the rate at which the Bureau of Labor Statistics counted people as unemployed went negative. Hence the title of this entry, “damnation through faint praise.”

As a percentage of population, 59.49 percent were employed in June. 59.37 percent were employed in July. That’s 155,000 fewer people.

In the year 2000, just as the dot-coms were beginning to bust, we reached a peak employment of 64.40 percent of the “civilian, noninstitutionalized” population. In 2000, the Bureau of Labor Statistics excluded 32.93 percent of the population from the job market. It excludes 34.50 percent now, over eleven million more people. The population has grown by about 23 million in that time. Just three million more people have jobs.

Wall Street and mainstream economists all say things are looking up. We’re bottoming out, they say. President Barack Obama even takes credit for “losing jobs at less than half the rate we were when [he] took office.” Here’s what they don’t say:

But while leaving the middle and working classes to strangle, the U.S. government moved at lightning speed to bail out the financial industry and pushed General Motors and Chrysler through bankruptcies at an astonishing pace. Even the great celebrator of capitalism, Forbes, has published an article criticizing the lavish bonuses doled out at taxpayer expense. In it, Robert Lenzner wrote, “One of the failures of capitalism is the pathetic lack of responsibility taken by the owners of American business and finance, who have sat idly by getting free cheese from Uncle Sam.”

But we are to understand that these priorities were essential in arresting a precipitous decline in the economy. As Noam Chomsky wrote in 1990, “For the homeless in the streets, then, the primary objective is to ensure that the rich live happily in their mansions.”

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