Only Planet

One Child, One Year, One Planet. A family of three traveling around the world...

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Friday, December 05, 2008

We Get By.

November’s unemployment numbers came out and they were so bad that Ethiopians are considering sending care packages to Americans.

Not really, but things are feeling pretty topsy turvy. One of the key indicators of the health of an economy is the unemployment rate. If you have a greater percentage of your population employed, that means higher productivity, more tax revenue (presumably for more services) and less cause for concern. But counting unemployment numbers is like taking the temperature of a sick patient. Yes, it will tell you something, but you might also want to pay attention to the blood gushing out of the orifices.

Even with fairly accurate numbers, I don’t think that unemployment numbers are a true gauge of economic well-being, since those numbers are calculated by counting those who file claims for unemployment insurance and a random sampling of households. Sure, someone like Andy—who works as an employee in a brick and mortar business—would be counted as unemployed if he lost his job, joining 500,000 of his fellow Americans in the past month, since his job qualifies him for unemployment insurance. But who isn’t counted?

America has a very diverse work force, and I’m not talking the usual diversities. In a land of Horatio Alger stories, where folks take Horace Greeley’s advice to “go west young man,” and where people can make a million dollars inventing tiny plastic plugs to go into lumpy plastic shoes, many of us are considered either employed or not in the labor force, even if we are making no money or would like very much to be in the labor force. People like real estate agents, contract writers, temp agency employees, in-home day care providers, and the multitude of people who are writing books, starting their own business and working anywhere and everywhere are all counted as healthy parts of the workforce, when they may actually be suffering.

Unemployment may look very different in our country than in others. Scenes like men milling in the streets (Egypt), children begging outside restaurants (Cambodia), and many generations of families living under one roof (Vietnam) may not be so common in the United States. But there are indicators that things here are not well. Unemployment "benefits" will probably run out in California as early as next month. Food banks are reporting a serious increase in first-time users, and even the CEO's of the big three auto companies are taking fuel-efficient cars to DC rather than their private jets.

I'm worried that our country has not reached the full depth and breadth that this economic crisis will throw at us. I wish I could figure out how best to bring a more environmentally sustainable, yet viable, economy to the forefront, but then If I did, my time would be better spent honing my resume and sending it to Obama for consideration for his economic team rather than blogging (thank you Arianna Huffington for legitimizing my electronic missives). In the meantime I plan on paying very close attention to Obama's plan to see if he can create that elusive balance.


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