Cold buildings and hot air: the Main Street choice between empty and hateful words

There’s so much manipulation of unemployment numbers[1] that we probably shouldn’t draw any conclusions from any of it. A better gauge can be found in the boarded-up shops, the nearly vacant shopping centers, the people waiting in “soup kitchen” and food pantry lines, the people standing on street corners and on median strips with signs, the foreclosure notices, the vacant homes, the “bank-owned” real estate signs, and the many other signs of distress in the real world. But last night, U.C. Berkeley Professor and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich asked on Twitter, “Will [today’s] job report be the wake-up call Washington needs? D’s [Democrats] can’t run on Medicare or rely on R’s [Republicans’] crackup. It’s jobs and wages.”[2]

Fig. 1: Two of the buildings Detroit will reportedly pay a purchaser to buy
Fig. 1: Two of the buildings Detroit will reportedly pay a purchaser to buy.

Reich is right of course, but the odd part about his rhetorical question is the number of “wake-up calls” the Democrats, who would more accurately since the 1970s be described as wannabe-Republicans, have already ignored. Barack Obama’s most telling response came in November 2009, when his message to the unemployed was, “We all know there are limits to what government can and should do even during such difficult times.”[3] Even the admitted “shellacking” in the November 2010 elections, which cost the wannabe-Republicans control of the House of Representatives, has failed to impel Obama or his faction to action.[4]

Well, there will be a time and a place for the President to engage in 2012 election politics, and my guess is that will be 2012. But I will say that when this President took office, we were in the deepest recession since the Great Depression. The President inherited the largest deficit in the history of the country from an administration that had, when it came into power eight years previous, inherited budget surpluses from a Democratic President. The recession got worse before it got better when this President took office. We were hemorrhaging jobs at a rate of 600,000 to 700,000 a month. The circumstances were unprecedented, save the Great Depression, as you well know — all of you covered it.

There were moments in the first few months when this President took office, long before anything he could do — any action he could take could take force, where people were talking about unemployment rates of 25 or 30 percent; bank holidays or nationalization of the banks. The situation was severe; the crisis was profound.

The President took dramatic action, including unpopular decisions like bailing out the auto industry, the American auto industry, because he felt it was the right thing to do; he felt that the million jobs associated with the auto industry were worth saving if we could extract from those companies measures that would ensure that they were given the better chance of succeeding. As Ron Bloom said yesterday from this podium, there is ample evidence to suggest that that decision was the right one.

We have now experienced 14 straight months of private sector job creation — 2.1 million jobs created. Again, he’s taking office with an inheritance of a great recession and 600,000 to 700,000 jobs lost per month; in the last 14 months, 2.1 million created — seven quarters of economic growth.[5]

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney’s boast was belied by the facts that, given the April unemployment numbers publicly available at the time he made those remarks, the labor force participation rate was stuck at 1984 levels; there were over 31 million people who are either unemployed or involuntarily working part-time for economic reasons; that an honest reckoning of the underemployment rate was 19.4 percent (Gallup’s measure of underemployment was at 19.2 percent as of May 30);[6] that a principal way the official U3 unemployment rate has been coming down has been through discouraged workers leaving what the Bureau of Labor Statistics counts as the labor force (but whom I attempt to include in my reckoning);[7] that ADP payroll statistics indicated “U.S. companies hired far fewer workers than expected in May and output in the manufacturing sector slowed to its lowest level since 2009;”[8] and that “a full-fledged double dip in home prices has been finally confirmed by the Case-Shiller Index as ‘home prices continued on their downward spiral with no relief in sight,’ in the words of index chairman David Blitzer;”[9] all pointing to the absolute failure of the financial system bailout, tax cuts for the wealthy, “quantitative easing,” and an inadequate stimulus to do a damned thing for anybody but the very well off—while costing a lot of people who have been hurt in ways ranging from employment and housing to their retirement plans and their net worth.[10]

Fig. 2: Unemployment rates since 1994 (updated April 7, 2017, inserted here November 11, 2020)

The BLS report for May offers little solace; their news release begins, “Nonfarm payroll employment changed little (+54,000) in May, and the unemployment rate was essentially unchanged at 9.1 percent.”[11] In my analysis, in which I assume from decades of essentially stagnant wages that the economic need for work has not decreased and take the maximum yet achieved labor participation rate as indicating the true labor market size, and thus presently including about 9.5 million more people; and treat seasonal adjustments as having equal validity to seasonal adjustments in housing payments, the need to eat, and other living costs—and therefore reject them, I find very slight improvements from April: a U3 of 14.06 percent and a U6 of 19.14 percent. (I name these statistics after my cat, Admiral Janeway, fig. 2.) Over 31 million remain underemployed.[12]

Simply put, the economic and political elite of this country are not putting people back to work; and for the unemployed and poor, the coexistence of homelessness and vacant homes demonstrates that while money continues to facilitate the export of jobs they could be doing, it utterly fails to facilitate the exchange of goods and services that they depend upon for survival and for a dignified existence. Money amplifies the inherent injustice of any exchange system, which can only privilege those who have the most power to decline a deal, in the present case, those who already have plenty to eat, luxurious homes, and plenty of help from the government.

Meanwhile, the difference that emerges between the Republican and Republican-wannabe factions which exposes the latter as mere pretenders who should be removed from office for the sheer incompetence of their incoherence. Sarah Palin, in her non-campaign campaign in a statement that wasn’t to upstage Mitt Romney’s announcement of his presidential candidacy, said,

Even on a state level and a local level, [individual health insurance] mandates coming from a governing body [such as required by the Massachusetts universal health care law that Romney signed], it’s tough for a lot of us independent Americans to accept because we have great faith in the private sector and in our own families, . . . and our own businessmen and women making decisions for ourselves. Not any level of government telling us what to do.[13]

This is a statement that is breathtaking for its clarity, that is a far cry from Obama’s and his administration’s repeated and muddled claims that the economy is a top priority. In Palin’s remarks, we see clearly that she excludes the poor, the unemployed, those who come from families with limited resources, and those who work for employers who do not provide health insurance. In other words, if you aren’t well off, you’re on your own and to hell with you, but vote for her anyway, just as so many of you have repeatedly voted against your own interests in the past.[14] And while the Republican field is a long ways from resolving to front-runners for the nomination, a New York Times story begins flatly with a warning for Obama, “No American president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt has won a second term in office when the unemployment rate on Election Day topped 7.2 percent.”[15]

Christina Romer, who headed the president’s Council of Economic Advisers until fall 2010, said in a recent speech at Washington University in St. Louis that no part of the government was addressing unemployment with sufficient urgency or hope.

“Urgency, because unemployment is a tragedy that should not be tolerated a minute longer,” she said. “And hope, because prudent and possible policies could make a crucial difference.”[16]

Palin’s message really is the same as Obama’s refusal to consider single-payer health care,[17] his deals with the pharmaceutical companies,[18] his health insurance mandate, which is expected to leave 23 million uninsured;[19] and his message that the unemployed should not look to the government to create jobs. Palin’s message is unconfused by the likes of Obama’s claim that “[he doesn’t] think there’s anything courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill,”[20] which, like so many other of his fine words, is unmatched in deeds, his actual deeds being those which led Princeton University Professor Cornel West (an African-American) to call Obama “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats.”[21] For Palin, the only problem is that the government may be interfering with greed.

“There’s class warfare, all right,” Mr. [Warren] Buffett said, “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”[22]

Something I have seen repeatedly over the decades of my life is that you cannot yield to a bully; for if you do, he will come back for more. Certainly we have seen that with an oligarchy that has for decades favored the rich, making them much richer, and stigmatized, imprisoned, and deprived the poor as “undeserving.”[23] Palin’s hypocrisy in advancing the interests of the wealthy while appealing to working class whites for their votes is matched by Obama’s hypocrisy in taking the Progressive vote for granted while advancing policies that fall on a scale between the far right that of the wannabe-Republicans and radically far right of the actual Republicans. Both hypocrisies are lethal to the poor, who should combine their forces and rise up in self-defense against those who are depriving them of their right to a life of dignity.

Photograph (fig. 1) by Kevin Bauman.[24]

  1. [1]Tyler Durden, “Art Cashin Explains Why The ADP Conundrum May Soon Be Resolved,” Zero Hedge, June 2, 2011,
  2. [2]Robert Reich, Twitter, June 2, 2011,!/RBReich/status/76485314755039232
  3. [3]Michael A. Fletcher and Neil Irwin, “Obama to have forum on job creation,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 13, 2009,
  4. [4]CNN, “Obama blames economy for Democratic ‘shellacking’,” November 3, 2010,
  5. [5]Jay Carney, “Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney,” White House, June 2, 2011,
  6. [6]Gallup, “U.S. Employment,” June 3, 2011,; Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Table A-1. Employment status of the civilian population by sex and age,” February 5, 2010,; Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Table A-8. Employed persons by class of worker and part-time status,” February 4, 2011,
  7. [7]Paul Wiseman, “‘Discouraged workers’ leaving labor force, even as economy is adding jobs,” San Jose Mercury-News, June 2, 2011,
  8. [8]Leah Schnurr, “Recovery fears mount after slow jobs, factory data,” Reuters, June 1, 2011,
  9. [9]Agustino Fontevecchia, “Case-Shiller Home Price Index Officially Double-Dips, Goldman ‘Cautiously Optimistic’,” Forbes, May 31, 2011,
  10. [10]masaccio, “Federal Reserve Board Data Confirms Failure of Politicians and Economists in Aftermath of Great Crash,” Firedoglake, June 2, 2011,
  11. [11]Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employment Situation Summary,” June 3, 2011,
  12. [12]Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Table A-1. Employment status of the civilian population by sex and age;” Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Table A-8. Employed persons by class of worker and part-time status.”
  13. [13]Shawna Thomas, Alex Moe, and Mark Murray, “Palin fires shot at Romney at Bunker Hill,” MSNBC, June 2, 2011,
  14. [14]Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005); Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools (New York: HarperPerennial, 1991); Scott Sernau, Worlds Apart: Social Inequalities in a Global Economy, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, 2006).
  15. [15]Binyamin Appelbaum, “Employment Data May Be the Key to the President’s Job,” New York Times, June 1, 2011,
  16. [16]Appelbaum, “Employment Data May Be the Key to the President’s Job.”
  17. [17]Democracy Now!, “As Obama Hosts Summit on Healthcare, Marginalized Advocates Ask Why Single Payer Is Ignored,” March 6, 2009,
  18. [18]Barbara O’Brien, “Obama’s Deal With Big Pharma,” Alternet, August 10, 2009,
  19. [19]Mark Trumbull, “Obama signs health care bill: Who won’t be covered?” Christian Science Monitor, March 23, 2010,
  20. [20]Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President on Fiscal Policy,” White House, April 13, 2011,
  21. [21]Chris Hedges, “The Obama Deception: Why Cornel West Went Ballistic,” Truthdig, May 16, 2011,
  22. [22]Ben Stein, “In Class Warfare, Guess Which Class Is Winning,” New York Times, November 26, 2006,
  23. [23]Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—And turned Its back on the Middle Class (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010); Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and The Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004).
  24. [24]Kamelia Angelova, “Detroit Will PAY You To Take One Of These 100 Abandoned Homes,” Business Insider, February 16, 2011,

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