Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Lies, Unemployment and the Bureau of Labor Statistics

        They lie. They lie and we have to be merciful with those who lie.

                 -- Col. Kurtz from Apocalypse Now (1979)

People demand different things from their government, but generally speaking our government is supposed to keep our nation out of a war when possible, to fight a war successfully when it is necessary, and to assure that their citizens are prosperous and free with valid elections, an honest judicial system, freedom of religion and a free press.

But when we have a failure of one of these criteria, such as prosperity, what should we expect from our government? Should we expect it to lie about the situation? Perhaps. Governments regularly lie about bad news. But should we want it to lie about the situation? Probably not. Probably when things are bad it is best for people to know about it so they can make reasonable plans and change the government if necessary. Obviously, governments do not in general want that, so they lie.

Its one thing to spin public opinion, its another thing to lie about something that is life and death. Its another thing to lie such that people do not have the information to make rational decisions, or to hide the failure of government, over and over again, to stay in power.  

I have a personal favorite in the lying sweepstakes, because it is so stupid, so self-serving, and so obviously indicates that our government is corrupt and without integrity, at least in this area. (1)

My favorite lie is the lie of the “unemployment rate” that is regularly announced by the US Government. For example, recently we heard that that unemployment rate has dropped to 6% and in some sense that is true. In other words, you can design a metric and then measure it and report it, but that does not mean anything about unemployment particularly. In this case, the metric is designed to not only misrepresent the situation but to do so in a way that is particularly deceptive.

Now those of us who have had the pleasure of studying aggregate economic indicators such as GNP understand that these things are far from perfect.   They are necessarily compromises that may have some value when properly interpreted.  Too much reliance on any one indicator is almost certainly a mistake.  However, when an indicator is deliberately designed to obscure what it is nominally supposed to reveal, then we cross a line from an imperfect tool to deliberate deception.  And that is what we find with the unemployment rate.

Because if you examine the details of what the unemployment rate measures, you discover that it only measures the unemployment of those who were recently employed. In other words, they had a job, they lost it, and then they got another job rather soon thereafter. But if for any reason they did not get a job again within 18 months, then they are no longer measured. They no longer exist on any statistic of unemployed as measured by our government so far as I know. (4)

These statistics come from the Bureau of Labor Statistics whose web site is www.bls.gov. If you have the time, you are invited to visit this web site and see if you can figure out what the unemployment rate means and how it is calculated. It will take a while but the information is there. And I have slightly oversimplified matters, but I am not wrong about the broad thrust. The unemployment rate deliberately understates unemployment, and in particular it deliberately understates those who are the most miserable and the most affected by unemployment.

And this is deliberate. Because you see, who is employed and who is not has very little to do with merit, but it has everything to do with fashion, with appearances, and with choosing a field that turns out to be less affected by globalization, or with foreign government subsidies, and so forth. And in the corporate view of things, which our government unanimously supports, only those who have been working recently are or should be eligible to be employed. If, for any reason, you have not been employed recently, then you fall out of fashion and become a much harder case to deal with.

And they don't want to deal with it. They don't want to know about it. They don't want you to know about it. They wish those people would go away and die, and in a sense they will. Because they are poor, and our government only responds to the rich, the unemployed are powerless to do anything about it. And so they become impoverished, a burden on their family, and their lives are ruined.

Because my career involves technology and media, particularly the use of computing in motion picture production, computer animation and visual effects,  I happen to know a number of people in the category of chronically unemployed. Of the dozen or so people that I know who are in this category and whose situation I have followed for a while, all but one of them are still unemployed three years later.  In some cases they have been unemployed for longer in spite of vigorous efforts to change that.   Several of them have had small projects during this period, which helps but does not solve the problem. A few of them have had jobs / projects that lasted a year and then finished.   All of my friends are interesting, educated, experienced and capable people with a good track record by the standards of the industry that they are a part of.  All but one of them failed to get a trust fund.  The problem does not lie with them, the problem lies with the structure of our economy. (2)

Of these people, three of them are essentially homeless, and one of them is literally homeless. (3) A fourth person is becoming homeless over the next few months.

And none of these people except the one who did indeed get a real job show up in the government's statistics on unemployment. And these people are trying and these people are miserable. But they are officially invisible.

The economy is not improving at least not for these dozen people I know. Furthermore, even if they were all employed tomorrow, or became a successful entrepreneur (which many of them have certainly been trying to do) nothing short of a making a whole lot of money will help. Why? Because they have accumulated debts, or lived on their retirement fund, and because they have not been able to add to their savings during these lost years of employment.

So even if they were employed starting tomorrow, they would in most cases still be fucked.

Which is why our government does not want to measure them, does not want to know about them, does not want to acknowledge they exist. To do so would be to admit that they, the government, has failed and lied all the while.

Now, the US Government, having lied about such an important issue, and having done so year after year, knowingly and deliberately, why should I or anyone ever believe them again?



1. In contrast, there may be areas where the government does have integrity.  For example, I have noticed and believe that when the US Government issues a terrorist warning, which is generally a vague statement that some sort of attack may happen in some area (e.g. W. Africa) that they only do that when they have genuine information that something might happen, but not enough to be able to stop it, or to be specific. In other words, I am accusing the US Government of integrity in this area. Other people believe that the government does this to manipulate public opinion or the results of elections, but I don't think so. Anything in the area of intelligence can be confusing to the general citizen outside that community, but I have to admit that trusting them in this area, but not trusting them in others may not be totally logical, or it may acknowledge an important fact: our government is diverse and one part is not like the other.  The FBI is not the NSA, and so forth.

2. In one case, the problem does lie with the individual who is so eccentric and difficult, if brilliant, that it is not to be believed. The fact that he ever held a job would be miraculous if you did not realize that the job he held was a complete anomaly and not at all a normal job in the least.

3. I call someone homeless if they are living on a friends couch or in a spare room but could not afford rent if this couch were not made available.  Then I call someone literally homeless if they do not have that couch, but are living on the street.

4. It may be that an indicator that may include such long term unemployed is the Social Security disability system.   If so, this is a very imperfect indicator, although I know that some people have found it a useful metric for this.



Bureau of Labor Statistics

Apocalypse Now (1979) on IMDB

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