I just got a notification from Yahoo finance (a surprisingly good app), “Nobody has a clue what’s happening: Bumper jobs growth after Poloz calls economy disappointing.”
It’s not the first time I’ve heard a stat suggesting that job growth and unemployment are at their best numbers ever. Not the first time I’ve heard someone refer to the economy as disappointing either. What I personally find disappointing is the comment that nobody has a clue as to what’s going on.
Let’s start by pointing out a few key facts. Wealth has systematically shifted from the many to the few. Cost of living has grown several times faster than wages. Full-time work no longer guarantees a living wage. The majority of North America is now living paycheck to paycheck. Automation has replaced most unskilled labor. Millennials are the most educated generation yet. Student loan debt is at an all time high. Depression is at an all-time high. Drug use is at an all-time high. Suicide rates are at all-time highs.
Damn right we need new metrics.
Every time someone says unemployment rates are at all-time lows, I get rather frustrated. It’s only part of the picture. The idea of a job for everyone who wants a job is a great idea. But you know what else has a 100% employment rate? Slavery. The difference between the two is that with employment, you’re paid for your services and can choose to work elsewhere. And that you’re responsible for your own cost of living. And if nobody is willing to pay you a livable wage, that’s your problem.
Where I live, someone came up with the stat that it cost a little over $300,000 in annual income to support a middle class lifestyle. This was defined as owning a modest home, 2 cars, 2 kids, university educations, and annual vacations. The average household income here is about $75,000. The unemployment rate takes none of that into consideration. We could have a 0% unemployment rate and the city would still be filled with people who couldn’t afford to buy a home, raise a family, or any of what we have come to understand as basic entitlements. Perhaps home ownership isn’t something we should feel entitled towards.. perhaps the same with having a family. But then I ask why we’ve had to give these up, and it just doesn’t add up. Then I ask what happens if we just accept it.. and it’s not good for anyone.
First things first, we have to agree on what we’re all aiming for. I think the most universal answer to that is happiness. Everyone just wants to be happy, and for those who prefer things like power.. well.. they have the current system. If happiness is the goal, we need to start focusing on the metrics that are most closely correlated. Two things that we know of that are strongly and negatively correlated with happiness are cost of living and debt. While breaking unemployment records, North America is also setting new records in debt and cost of living. That seems to tell a story: The average American is educated, overworked, underpaid, in debt, and losing hope.
Tell me again about how great our unemployment rates are.
Or maybe recognize that an unemployment rate is only part of the equation and that equal attention much be paid to the rest. First would be the alignment between the skills of your workforce and the jobs they’re in. If you have a nation of computer programmers, scientists, and writers but your job market is filled with part-time customer service jobs, you did it wrong. Second would be whether or not your workforce was being fairly compensated. If you have a low unemployment rate and most of most of your workforce can’t afford a basic cost of living, you did it wrong. Third would be how well prepared your workforce is for the future. Jobs are being lost to automation at an increasing rate and we’re likely approaching an economy where AI and robotics will be able to handle 80% of the existing jobs within the next 20 years. If you’re bragging about anything that’s happening this year without preparing for that future, you’re doing it wrong.
You see a lot of stats when you read articles or watch the news. We use them to try and understand what’s important.. but in the process of doing so, we seem to have lost sight of what’s important. It really is about being happy. Imagine a national happiness index being reporting on quarterly. Imagine politicians seeing that number as their most important metric. If you knew that increasing the cost of living would lead to stress and unhappiness, why would you celebrate a real estate boom? If you knew that the bottom 80% of Americans only own about 7% of the stock market’s value, would you really be celebrating a booming stock market?
How about this stat, a ratio of healthcare spending against military spending. Let’s be honest about it and see how much we’re willing to spend on healing people versus harming people. Or let’s push that a step further and compare military spending to humanitarian spending. How much money are you willing to spend on helping versus hurting. I can just about guarantee that would be a far better foreign policy than what we’ve seen play out of the last 20 years.
What about a stat that shows up how much tax large multi-national corporations are paying? Something that takes all sources of government funding into consideration so we know just how much of their operations are subsidized by tax-payers. Military defense contracts anyone? What about major tax breaks for fossil fuel companies..
We gotta have something that covers national debt too. A big deal was made of this years ago but the story got stale. Now we have a president who was notorious for running up debt and bankrupting businesses. As a result, in a matter of a few years, the country’s single largest expense will be it’s debt payment. Maybe we need a catastrophe more than we need a metric on this one.
The whole point of statistics is to reduce a great deal of information down into key points. When done well, those key points illuminate the important parts of what should be an ongoing conversation. Unfortunately, we now have stats for the sake of stats. And it’s no longer a conversation but an argument. It’s not a pursuit of the truth or a more accurate understanding of the situation, it’s a tribal battle for power in which stats are only used to support your argument or undermine theirs. I wish we could get back to the same side of the table.