These are ugly numbers. The popularization of the U3 unemployment rate as the official rate in the United States frankly amounts to propaganda. The U5 and U6 figures much more accurately reflect the percentage of Americans who need but can’t find work, which is exactly what Americans want to know about the labor market. Excluding discouraged workers, i.e., ones who are so despairing of their chances of finding work that they have given up looking, is scandalous. European governments have the decency to provide more or less accurate unemployment figures, even at the expense of their own legitimacy. There’s no way to sugarcoat official unemployment rates in Spain, which push 40% in some regions. A nightmare on that scale is obviously the result of serious structural problems in the labor market, not anyone’s laziness. The real unemployment rate in the United States isn’t close to Spain’s, but neither is it close to the U3 rate, which is endlessly trumpeted as the official rate. Nationally, the U3 rate is almost double the U6 rate. As fudging the numbers goes, this is pretty serious.
Let’s think about these statistics in terms of small groups of people, say, at a party. The national U3 rate of 5.9% is roughly equivalent to one person in seventeen being unemployed. The national U6 rate of 11.6% is roughly equivalent to one person out of a group of nine. The U6 rate in California, 14.7%, works out to one out of seven. Let this sink in: this would mean that, if there were seven people at this party, one of them would be either unemployed or unable to find as much work as he’d like; out of a group of 21, there would be three people in this position.
No one would seriously believe that one adult in seven is functionally unemployable. One in seventeen? Maybe. One in seven? Hell no. That’s just nuts. These numbers don’t mean that one in seven can’t find a meaningful, lucrative career. It means that they can’t find work, or as much work as they’d like, pumping gas or running a cash register or washing dishes. They can’t even find shit jobs at minimum wage.
The numbers for California are worth considering because California is the most populous state in the union by a long shot, with well over a tenth of the national population. If California shits the bed, the effects will spill over into other states, both in Mexico and in the US. Mexico is perennially dysfunctional, and the United States has been in a second Great Depression since 2008. Having the second-highest unemployment rate in the most populous state is bad news.
The United States is much more politically stable than it should be with numbers like these. This stability is a testament to the political and social marginalization of the unemployed. Insofar as the unemployment affects young people, it may be a testament to the importance of family ties allowing unemployed and underemployed young people to crash with their parents or other relatives. Anyone who dislikes civil unrest should be thankful that so many young Americans are still living at home; if they weren’t, we’d be having bread riots by now. Having personally been more or less put out on the street for months at a time over an appalling family dispute with belligerently narcissistic relatives, I have trouble imagining how even five percent of the sober population ending up in my circumstances wouldn’t have our cities on fire if the dispossessed found each other.
On the other hand, a great deal of energy is devoted to socially conditioning the American homeless to be meek. We’re supposed to believe that we got this way because we turned to the bottle or the needle. Well, we didn’t all. We’re supposed to come to Jesus, which really means supplicating ourselves before religious busybodies. What we need is a fucking government jobs and housing program. Seven years ago. The government needs to make the bottomfeeding lowbrow homeless outreach evangelists and sobriety concern trolls completely irrelevant. It needs to put them in a position where they have nothing to offer the down-and-out that government programs aren’t already offering more reliably and with fewer strings attached. I’ve had brushes with these busybody fuckheads. If I ever got into a position in which I had to depend on them for housing or job training and they tried to use religious tests or guilt trips or retaliation on me, I’d probably sue the shit out of them for discrimination.
It’s worrisome that there’s no modern-day equivalent to “Brother, can you spare a dime?” Instead we have that twee but crass ditty about getting rich and moving to the south of France, which was on heavy rotation at Starbucks a month or two ago. As a country, we remain divided against ourselves. Whitey assumes that the Ferguson, New York, and Baltimore protests were just about race. They weren’t. Much of the trouble had to do with caste, and it happened in a country whose black population is generally low-caste. Maybe we’re just better at masking or isolating the trouble than we were in the first Great Depression. Few people outside the libertarian fringes recognize Eric Garner as an American Mohamed Bouazizi. Maybe we weren’t just ready as a country for a full Mohamed Bouazizi moment when Eric Garner was strangled to death by the police for selling cigarettes without a permit. This was, of course, the behavior of a third-world government, the sort of thing that Tunisians would have understood in straightforward class terms.
In an ironically hopeful twist, it’s easy to lose sight of how much reactionary horseshit there was in American politics during the Great Depression: homeowners bitching about destitute families living in house trailers and not paying property taxes, that kind of thing. Smedley Butler claimed that a junta of industrialists tried to recruit him to overthrow the US government and install himself as a fascist military dictator operating under their behind-the-scenes direction. Maybe I’m just comparing the two Great Depressions at the wrong scale. I’d like to think so, since the official response has been such an enduring clusterfuck of corruption and lying, enabled by a suite of self-serving, hypocritical bourgeois socioeconomic values that are frankly vile.
Somehow the center is still holding. It will hold until it holds no more. As Yogi Berra said, predictions are hard, especially when they concern the future.