Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Comparing jobs/employment data across generations

Economics professor Bradley Schiller:

[O]ur current economic woes don't come close to those of the 1930s. At worst, a comparison to the 1981-82 recession might be appropriate. Consider the job losses that Mr. Obama always cites. In the last year, the U.S. economy shed 3.4 million jobs. That's a grim statistic for sure, but represents just 2.2% of the labor force. From November 1981 to October 1982, 2.4 million jobs were lost -- fewer in number than today, but the labor force was smaller. So 1981-82 job losses totaled 2.2% of the labor force, the same as now.

Job losses in the Great Depression were of an entirely different magnitude. In 1930, the economy shed 4.8% of the labor force. In 1931, 6.5%. And then in 1932, another 7.1%. Jobs were being lost at double or triple the rate of 2008-09 or 1981-82.

This was reflected in unemployment rates. The latest survey pegs U.S. unemployment at 7.6%. That's more than three percentage points below the 1982 peak (10.8%) and not even a third of the peak in 1932 (25.2%). You simply can't equate 7.6% unemployment with the Great Depression.

My problem with this argument is this: you can compare jobs/employment numbers across generations, but I would not do it as loosely as this economist does, without giving some context. There is a question about what the official unemployment rate measures, or more specifically, what it fails to measure. For example, the economist above doesn't cite the current U-6 number, which at 13.9% is almost twice the official unemployment rate. It is possible that something close to this number is a better comparison with 1930s data. If so, the picture looks totally different than Mr. Schiller concludes. He should at least acknowledge this.

He accuses President Obama of using language to ratchet up the fear, and he may be right. But the way he uses data leaves little room for his own explanation to be credibile.

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