Three Secrets About Unemployment and Jobs

by Hanno Beck

I felt terrible that morning, so I called in sick. But as soon as I set down the phone I started feeling better. So I went out to the shopping mall to take care of an errand.

A weekday morning. The mall will be quiet, empty, peaceful, and I’ll get a great parking place, right? But no! The mall wasn’t empty at all. I got a rotten, lousy parking space, and inside the usual crowds of people were there. What were all these other people doing there — they can’t all have called in sick this morning! Don’t they have jobs? After all, the unemployment rate is only 4.5%.

This was puzzling. I wanted to know how all those other people could be at the mall. So I went on a fact-finding mission.

I’ll tell you the basic answer right now. Don’t those crowds of people at the mall have jobs? The answer is no, most of them do not have jobs. They are unemployed.

Our government defines unemployment so that the term applies only to certain people who are seeking a job, have a certain type of household, and have only been looking for a job for a certain period of time. It is a statistic about a certain SUBSET of unemployed people, but don’t make the mistake of believing that the unemployment statistic shows the full picture of how many people really are out of work.

I prefer to be very plain and direct. I call someone unemployed unless they are being paid money for at least 20 hours each week. That’s it. And in that case, what is the national unemployment rate?

In 1996, the last year for which complete figures are available, 126,708,000 people were employed in the United States. On any given day, about 5.8 million are not working due to sickness, taking a vacation, or some other official reason.

Many people work weekdays, during the daytime hours, but some work night shifts, evenings, and on weekends. About one-fourth work significantly less than 35 hours per week.

I did some arithmetic, and here is the bottom line. During weekdays, daytime, the true unemployment rate in the United States is 64%, in the evenings it’s about 85% and in the middle of the night, or on weekends, it can go as high as 95%. Most people are not working for pay.

When somebody says all responsible people work, or that unemployed people are just a handful of losers, quitters, and communists, you can point out that we never have more than 36% of Americans at work at any given time. And even if everyone in the workforce worked at the same moment, that would still amount to just 48% of us. That leaves a lot of people to take up parking spaces at the mall. Most people are not in the workforce. Most people do not have official jobs. Most people are unemployed. That is secret #1 about unemployment.

You might wonder who these vast hordes of unemployed people are. A lot of them are housewives and househusbands — they may not be paid, but they do lots of work. And many people are volunteer workers — there are over 100 million volunteers in the USA. A lot of unemployed people are youngsters, and a lot of them are elderly. We don’t expect many of them to be employed. But they are real people, they buy goods and services, they pay taxes. They go to shopping malls. In just my own county there are about 330,000 of these unemployed people — you see some unemployed people every time you are in public, every time you buy groceries, every time you attend a meeting.

Now suppose we only used the government statistics, that claim the unemployment rate is just 4.5%, not 64%. We can still find a few surprises.

The national unemployment rate in the last five years has fluctuated between 4 percent and 5.6 percent. The actual number of people considered unemployed according to that statistic has fluctuated between 5.7 million and 7.4 million.

Millions and millions. I don’t think those numbers mean very much to most of us, so let’s boil them down differently. A typical full time employee works about 81,000 hours during their lifetime. That’s a person’s career. How you spend that 81,000 hours is how you spend your career. When six and a half million people are unemployed for just one day, the number of work-hours wasted is equal to 80 careers. Adjust the number to take account of vacations and illness and so on, and we are wasting over 1400 careers every month, or 16,800 per year.

That’s 16,800 work-lives thrown away each year, based on the small unemployment statistic of 4.5%, not my larger number of 64%. Even based on the small number, we can still see a great tragedy of unused human energy.

In my county alone, we forfeit, we waste, we destroy, a little more than one career every week. What are we wasting? We may have postponed or cancelled finding a cure for AIDS. We are saying no to more librarians, more teachers, more firemen. We may have pushed away, delayed, or stopped, the next Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we may have discarded the next Albert Einstein. That tragic waste of 16,800 lifetimes of work every year is the second secret about unemployment.

The third secret about unemployment is also simple arithmetic. Very roughly, there are two people for every one job in this country, so very roughly, each person in America buys and consumes enough goods and services to keep about one half of one person employed. Each of us is to be thanked for “creating” about one half of a job.

In the state of Maine last year, the government gave taxpayer money to a private business to locate there. You have heard of such deals, I am sure. They are usually called corporate welfare — paying taxpayer money to private profitable companies. The companies try to justify the handouts by boasting that they “bring jobs to a community.” National Semiconductor, the recipient of Maine’s new corporate welfare giveaway, is bringing jobs all right — at a ridiculous cost of $229,000 tax dollars each. And that’s not the highest such cost in these corporate welfare scandals, some are far worse.

National Semiconductor is bringing jobs to a community — but only because people, you and I, are willing to buy their products or the products of companies that they sell to. The economy starts or stalls, and jobs are created or eliminated based on what end users — consumers — people just like you and me — are willing to pay for. Corporations aren’t the ones that create jobs, we are.

Please, in the future, whenever you hear about such corporate welfare deals, oppose them, and point out that you yourself are “bringing jobs to a community” — each of us brings about one-half of one job, and nobody had to give us handouts. If National Semiconductor deserves $229,000 per job, then you must deserve $114,500 for the half-job that you support. And if you don’t get this windfall, then neither should the corporate welfare applicant. That is secret #3 about unemployment — employed or not, you support the economy. If you don’t deserve huge handouts for bringing jobs to your community, then neither does a corporation.

To recap — secret #1, the unemployment statistic is 4.5%, but really, friends, the unemployment rate is actually at least 64%. Secret #2, our economy wastes 16,800 entire lifetime careers every year. Can we afford that? Secret #3, you bring about one half of one job to your community so don’t give your tax dollars away to corporate welfare snake oil salesmen.

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