If it's jobless, it's not a recovery

Chris Lowe

Friday morning, in a pledge pitch on Oregon Public Broadcasting radio, someone put forward the proposition that the success of certain National Public Radio commentators in explaining the concept of a "jobless recovery" was a reason to contribute money to OPB.

For me it would be the opposite. While hardly alone in the pack media, the relentlessness with which NPR is promoting the idea of a jobless recovery seems to me to be one of the periodic instances in which it sinks into its role as National Propaganda Radio for its corporate underwriters. For while I did not even hear the commentary mentioned by the pitch man, I did hear a news story in which the phrase "jobless recovery" was repeated six times in the first 3 minutes of a 4 minute and 45 second story, with similar phrases used four more times. The story was an exercise in the mass media propaganda technique of turning an oxymoron into apparent "common sense" through repetition.

There is no such thing as a jobless recovery.

If it is jobless, it is not a recovery. Not in any real, human sense, not in the common sense of getting better, healing, being restored.

For an economy to recover from a recession or a depression, employment must be restored. If employment has not been restored, the economy has not recovered. The mere fact that the value of goods and services being produced ("gross domestic product") is growing again does not constitute a "recovery."

The issue comes down to what an economy is for? Is it merely to maximize total monetary values without regard to their distribution or the human consequences of different distributions? Or is the purpose of an economy to promote the general material well-being of all of the members of society, the material dimension of what the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States defines as a key purpose of our polity: to promote the general welfare.

General well-being is not just material. It has social, cultural and mental/psychological/spiritual dimensions as well. But when the economy is seriously out of wack, when 20% of the population is unemployed or underemployed and others worried, when foreclosures and bankruptcies roar ahead in the millions, when giant banking oligopolies, having been rescued by public monies, continue to refuse to lend money, driving small and medium sized businesses under and constricting new businesses from opening, all of the other dimensions of the general welfare come under threat.

In these circumstances, conflating a technical jargon of economics into happy-talk of a "recovery" in the human sense is the worst sort of disingenuous cant. We should reject it out of hand.

Comments

  • (Show?)

    Very clear, very crisp, very true, Chris. Thanks.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)
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    I'll second that.

  • Kurt Chapman (unverified)
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    No lack of agreement here. Well written Chris.

  • Old Ducker (unverified)
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    If you pump enough credit into the economy and have negative interest rates it's going to have an effect. It's all just piling up another stack of cards, however, as is the phony TARP-fueled stock market rally. The worst is yet to come. Your life, as you knew it, is over...at least for a decade or two.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)
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    "It's all just piling up another stack of cards, however, as is the phony TARP-fueled stock market rally. The worst is yet to come. Your life, as you knew it, is over...at least for a decade or two."

    And with another branch of 'the best and the brightest" getting it wrong in the war zone we may have already gotten the one-two punch for a knockout.

  • rw (unverified)
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    Chris, the first time this bullshit slogan showed up to my ears was when our economy bled out in 1999, with the demise of IT and the flight of the service industry increasingly to India (a foodstamp recipient in trouble got a Hindi call center when they called the number on the back of their Oregon Trail Card! And got no meaningful help whatsoever.)

    Our state economist, he of the cutesy economic reports and forecasts written in verse, caused me to gag when he began his speech on the jobless recovery.

    I am with you: this is a misuse of language and terminology, it's a confabulation, frankly.

    Good post. Good RIPOSTE to the flak activity going on right now. The Administration is desperate for bonhomie as well, I'll wager. It goes to the top of the food chain, does not stop at Corporation level, my bet.

  • Lord Beaverbrook (unverified)
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    Didn't the "they're not the unemployed, they're inflation fighters" logic start with Reagan? Since then I think one can argue that there have been two economies, and the one with its feet on the ground isn't "the economy".

  • (Show?)

    Actually, the term "jobless recovery" is a misnomer used to describe the early stage of an economic recovery. When economic activity first starts to pick up, people ypically start working more hours before employers actually add employees.

    Meanwhile, companies that lagging behind may even keep letting workers go and some companies may still be shutting down, meaning that employment is a lagging indicator of the typical economic recovery.

    Recovery is also something of a misnomer, because it refers to a process, not a result. When economic output stops declining, it is said that the recession is "over" even though prosperity has not returned. When production starts growing again, it the "recovery" is said to have started, even though unemployment may remain high for some time, and can even keep increasing for awhile.

    I understand the desire not to be complacent about a period of "jobless recovery" but that doesn't mean that the terminology is wrong or that it is intended to trick or mislead anyone. It means exactly what it says, no more and no less.

  • evil is evil (unverified)
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    Sorry, two days late, but still right. The unemployed need to form a union to voice their concerns, rights and the responsibility of any decent society to see that they do not starve, have access to health care and the right to have entertainment.

  • rw (unverified)
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    JObless recovery is a cutesy phrase and caught on like wildfire after 1998 or 99. I think, as a bit of an academic, I do not like cutesy phrases like this attached to misery. IT is never discussed, in my experience, except when rationalizing the fear, losses and misery of the people. And it was used a LOT, it felt to me, like a fan in the hand of Mr. Magic when the flight of industry and service jobs continued in the early two thousands.

    The jobless recovery bullet points did not address the continued rush of infrastructure to overseas locations where the culture lends the folk to being perfectly robotic in service to the corporation, much easier to manage than US workers in some ways. And cheaper, of course. As if the recovery desperately needed was due solely to this vaunted field of resource being dispersed out till the warehouses were empty enough to start the manufacture again: of data, of goods, of... whatever.

    The jobless recovery dog and pony show does not have room in it to discuss the continued REAL lost of jobs infrastructure of all kinds, not just the elements contained within that concept.

    There is where it's trickery, Jack. Incomplete and intellectually dishonest reportage always leaves a suffering populace enraged; an endangered group undeniably queasy.

  • Buckman Res (unverified)
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    NPR, along with every other news organization, is taking notice of how the administration is attempting to marginalize Fox News and obviously does not want to garner the same treatment.

    So NPR is carrying the administration's water and touting the "jobless recovery" instead of doing the hard work done by legitimate journalists in the past which includes speaking truth to power. The unemployment situation should be Job 1 for Obama, not health insurance reform.

    Let's hope they grow a pair soon and don't become yet another lackey media outlet for BHO. There is far too much at stake.

  • (Show?)

    Jack, if you read the story at the NPR link the claim is that this is a new kind of phenomenon in which the "lag" you describe is greatly extended, the term is specifically intended to designate a departure from previous normality, which is described in terms very close to your own.

    Beyond that, on the cant front, it forms a continuum with the practice of saying "getting worse more slowly" means "getting better," which the most elementary of logic shows not to be true.

    And economists do themselves a disservice by collaborating in abuse of terms with common sense meanings in the media. Suppose I postulate the phrase "economic growth is recovering" which sensu strictu I think is what you describe and for which I would say "has started again" would be clearer. Is "economic growth" recovering the same as "the economy" recovering? I say no, the economy is more than economic growth numbers.

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    Ack, grammar: previous normality as posited is described in terms very close to yours, Jack.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)
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    How about job-shedding recovery? That may be more accurate given the number of people being added to the unemployment rolls and those no long on that tragic list because they have given up looking for work.

    Of course, this gets back to defining terms. There is the old saw about it being a recession when your neighbor loses his or her job, but it is a depression when you lose yours.

  • (Show?)

    rw, you're right about the underlying economic changes being something else entirely.

  • (Show?)

    This is mostly to do with the fact that the definition of a "recession" is a completely arbitrary term, like most words in economics. It's not some sort of universal measure that was discovered; the currently-accepted guidelines for what a "recession" is just happened to fit some data at the time they were laid out. Because of that, there's no way to know whether this is a pause before an upturn or a plateau before another drop. Even if we have hit the bottom of a slump, we could be here for quite a while.

    Once it's over, what we are currently experiencing may fit neither the definitions for a recession or a depression. Economists may have to come up with a new set of defining data and call it a "pizzlenit" for all we know.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)
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    "The Dow's at 10,000, and the bankers are reaping huge bonuses, but the economy in which the rest of us live is a disaster. " More at Alternet: The Robber Barons are Back

  • (Show?)

    You're right, Chris, I didn't read the NPR link. To the extent they are describing this as something different from the norm, I think they are wrong--at least so far.

    In fact, the lag in employment gains coming out of the 1990-1 recession was a primary factor in Clinton's victory over GHW Bush. He was able to keep running on "It's the Economy, Stupid!" all the way through November,1992, even though in hindsight the recession was over and "recovery" had begun much earlier.

    So it is too early, in my view, to say that this is different from the historical norm.

    It does make your point, however, that people generally don't regard the economy as recovering until jobs are growing and unemployment is falling. After all, you can't feed your family with quarterly GDP reports or the DJIA.

  • Bob Tiernan (unverified)
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    Chris Lowe:

    the relentlessness with which NPR is promoting the idea of a jobless recovery seems to me to be one of the periodic instances in which it sinks into its role as National Propaganda Radio for its corporate underwriters.

    Bob T:

    Why would "corporate underwriters" benefit more from the use of this term than say, the government in general? Government, particularly the ruling majority, always wants us to think things are great. That's why Obama is constantly reminding us that we've turned the corner or something, and that the "recession is over".

    The economic facts behind the term are not new, as Jack Roberts has pointed out.

    By the way, I don't know why so many people assume that corporate underwiting, investing, contributing, etc. equals favorable propaganda or slanting. After all, the great film The Grapes of Wrath (1940) was made when 20th Century Fox obtained a large loan from one of the major banks (normal practice at the time), and the banks in general did not get favorable treatment in that story. It isn't that predictable, Chris.

    Bob Tiernan Portland

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    Bob, I accept that as generally fair comment, with the proviso that previous discussions suggest you and I have dramatically different understandings of the sociological relationships between states and markets and hence governments (including perhaps parastatal corporations like CPB & its subordinate elements) and corporations in modern capitalism.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)
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    "After all, the great film The Grapes of Wrath (1940) was made when 20th Century Fox obtained a large loan from one of the major banks (normal practice at the time), and the banks in general did not get favorable treatment in that story."

    The banks and other corporations are capable of overlooking the treatment they get if they get more revenue in exchange. In a discussion on a Bill Moyers Journal Bill Moyers asked Keith Olberman why his corporate bosses let him get away with his liberal, anti-corporate pitch. Olbermann essentially answered they didn't mind as long as they made money. To paraphrase an old ditty, insults may be nasty and offensive and hurt my bones, but if they are good for the balance sheet that's okay.t

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)
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    If the American economic system was treated the way we treat cars it would have been dumped a long time ago. Think about it. It keeps breaking down, its various drivers habitually drive under the influence without necessarily knowing where they are going, and has always been a miserable experience for many of its passengers and fatal to others. And now it is once again in desperate need of expensive repairs.

  • Bob Tiernan (unverified)
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    Buckman Res:

    NPR, along with every other news organization, is taking notice of how the administration is attempting to marginalize Fox News and obviously does not want to garner the same treatment.

    Bob T:

    Not that they have anything to worry about. I recall during the campaign that during a few interviews given by Twinkle-Toes he claimed to have a great gift in being able to sit down with a group of people who couldn't agree on anything and get them to agree (with him, I gather). Instead of asking for an example, the talking heads said that's great and moved onto the next thing, and the millions of fans nodded their heads like little bobble-head dolls. I suppose that a FOX News person asking for an example would mean that he's "attacking" the president. Whatever.

    Bob Tiernan Portland

  • Bob Tiernan (unverified)
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    Bob T:

    After all, the great film The Grapes of Wrath (1940) was made when 20th Century Fox obtained a large loan from one of the major banks (normal practice at the time), and the banks in general did not get favorable treatment in that story.

    Bill Bodden:

    The banks and other corporations are capable of overlooking the treatment they get if they get more revenue in exchange.

    Bob T:

    Nothing new there, but so much for the claim that big biz uses its wealth to squash what it doesn't want us to hear or see. The example above is no different from railroads in the late 1800s that didn't care what color anyone was in the first class section so long as they had green, or the southern restaurant owner who had no problem with mixed races at his lunch counter so long as everyone had money for the meal (sadly, control freaks used the power of government to force the restaurant owners and the railroad owners to get into the segregation business or else).

    Bob Tiernan Portland

  • L.C. Evans (unverified)
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    Great blog, Chris. You are right on. I am still wondering what in the hell is a jobless recovery, if not a bunch of meaningless nonsense. The politicians have a nice name for everything they try to get you to swallow. After my husband lost his tech job to cheaper imported labor so his company CEOs could cash out big in the stock market, I published a satirical novel called Jobless Recovery. Sadly many of the things I wrote about in the book have now come to pass, including mass joblessness and foreclosures.

  • Kurt Chapman (unverified)
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    Read Paul Krugman's interesting opinion piece this morning in the Seattle Times. He lambasts the banking system and our federal government handling of the situation.

    Basically he lays the next wave of banking problems solidly where they belong. The general public, unable to borrow has lead banks to yet another round of quarterly losses due primarily to credit card and mortgage issues. Yet the banks insist on focusing energy on highly speculative and ever complex trading schemes.

  • Bob Tiernan (unverified)
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    RW:

    the first time this bullshit slogan showed up to my ears...

    Bob T:

    Such terms are often coined to belittle something, or to serve as a euphemism. To examples of the former were the terms star wars, and trickle down theory (the latter of course was not coined by the Reagan team but by opponents). Easier to attack with a label than facts.

    Bob Tiernan Portland

  • Bush Crime Family Attorney (unverified)
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    Posted by: Kurt Chapman | Oct 20, 2009 8:25:22 AM

    Read Paul Krugman's interesting opinion piece this morning in the Seattle Times. He lambasts the banking system and our federal government handling of the situation.

    Jensen established that BO readers either can't process or aren't interested in that. The former, methinks.

    Points taken, though. The only thing the last go-round has established is that the system will not change appreciably until the system is absolutely trashed.

  • Bob Tiernan (unverified)
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    Bill Bodden:

    If the American economic system was treated the way we treat cars it would have been dumped a long time ago.

    Bob T:

    Are you talking about the system since the late 1800s (and even more so since the early 30s) with all that government intervention of picking winners and losers and distorting everything with warped incentives? Yeah, I'd throw that away, too.

    Bob Tiernan Portland

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