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Decoding the March US Jobs Report

April 7, 2013

Ah, the subtle art of reading job market statistics.  Akin to reading tea leaves, except that those who do it for a living are more likely to be white guys in suits than women in interesting dresses.

The US Labor Department just came out with a report showing lackluster hiring this month.  So everybody’s looking around for someone to blame.  As someone looking for a job that doesn’t completely suck, I count myself in this number.

On the PBS Newshour Friday, Mark Shields (their resident “left” commentator) and David Brooks (their resident “right” commentator) had a discussion on the topic that I think was actually fairly intelligent, and therefore worth quoting at length.

David Brooks:

There was a sense — and I had been hearing from economists, from businesspeople that we are finally reaching takeoff, because the housing market has been looking a lot better. The private debt has been looking a little better. So all of the fundamentals seem to be fine that we’re taking off. And that clearly is not the case, or probably not the case.

And so now we’re stuck in this frustrating economy. And, politically, you began to see everybody rallying around their favorite causes. Why does this happen? Some people pick on sequestration. But the timing isn’t quite right for that. The sequestration is probably going to hit, to the extent it does, later. Then, oh, maybe it’s because the payroll tax was raised or restored to earlier levels.

But, again, retail, jobs were down, retail sales not so much down, maybe health care. Well, it’s hard to see.

Well first of all, thanks for not immediately going “it’s the Republicans’ fault” or “it’s Obama’s fault”.  Second of all, let’s look more closely at retail.  You say later in the program:

You go into a drugstore now, it used to — there would be four cashiers checking you out. Now there’s four automatic machines and one person helping out the four machines.

Yes.  That’s it, exactly.  And the average number of hours someone in retail worked per week last month: 31.7.  The average hourly wage was $16.57, but anybody who’s ever worked in retail can tell you what kind of picture produced that number: store managers and retail buyers earning high wages for 40-50 hours per week of work, while salespeople and stockers earn close to minimum wage with hours that vary between 20-40 per week depending on immediate business needs.  The report also says that employment continued to trend up in temporary help services.  Which could explain what Stephen Bronars, chief economist of Welch Consulting (PhD in economics from the University of Chicago, so probably not a raging liberal) had to say to ABC News about the jobs numbers:

In February, the country showed a large increase in part-time jobs.

“Another month of data will help decide whether this was an anomaly, or whether part-time jobs are taking the place of full-time jobs,” Bronars said.

Bronars also expressed concern that the labor force participation continues to lag.

“Much of the decline in the unemployment rate has been due to people giving up their job search. A decrease in the unemployment rate and an increase in labor force participation are needed for a healthy recovery,” he said.

According to the above-quoted report, the S&P 500 is at an all-time high.  Now what does that tell you?

What I’m trying to say here is, I think the shitty economic numbers are due to deliberate decisions on the part of employers to hire part-time workers, sometimes-part-time-sometimes-full-time workers, and temporary workers instead of creating living-wage jobs.  Why?  Because they can.  Let’s not sugar-coat it here by saying it’s due to “globalization” or “technology”, impersonal forces that let the bosses off the hook.  The “gee-whiz” types will try to do that, as in, “Gee whiz, isn’t it amazing that I can videochat with people in China on my iPad?  And that I can play ‘Jeopardy’ against a supercomputer and ride in a driverless car?  Some uneducated workers will lose their jobs because of it, but hey, that’s the price of moving into the future.”  It’s bullshit, a way of avoiding talking about the impact government regulation has, the differences between laissez-faire economies like the US and economies like the Scandinavian ones where workers have much more rights, the differences between companies who CHOOSE to take the “high road” vs. the “low road”.

Interestingly, one of the few non-shitty job types where employment is on the rise is in accounting and bookkeeping services.  To me, this suggests that employers are really going through their books carefully in order to figure out how to reduce expenses, labor expenses in particular.

Mark Shields said something important:

11.7 million Americans were looking for jobs to go to last month, and they didn’t find one. And we have people, lowest percentage in the work force now in 34 years, 1979, which some of us may recall wasn’t a great time economically in this country.

And I think the earlier discussion really raised what I think is the fundamental question. I mean, the moral test of any society is whether that economy serves the human beings in it or the human beings are there to serve the economy. We have got corporate profits at an all-time high. We have got the stock market going through the roof. And yet we have this human waste of capital and these broken human dreams.

And I just think it’s time beyond just a quick Band-Aid fix or whatever. We have got to examine that. If we’re not going to produce jobs, I mean, what are we going to do with these people with their abilities, with their energy, with their ambition, with their time? I just think it’s a serious, serious question.

Well, I’ve got some possible answers.

1. Increase the minimum wage.  Thus making work pay for the many, many people who are looking at the job market, seeing mostly part-time and/or minimum-wage positions available, and saying “fuck it, I can’t live on that anyway.”  And possibly preventing some suicides.  (See previous posts.)

2. Give everybody a guaranteed basic income, like in Alaska.  Make it enough to actually live on.  This will result in an explosion of entrepreneurship, creativity, scientific innovation, and higher wages from employers, as people with great ideas can finally afford to quit their day jobs and devote themselves to those great ideas full-time, and as employers find themselves having to use the reward of more money and better working environments to attract workers, instead of the threat of homelessness.

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