Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Do You See The Employment Glass 92.2% Full Or 7.8% Empty?

The media regularly publish the UNemployment percentage, but rarely the employment percentage.   For those among the 7.8% unemployed, the impact runs from liberating (a very few) to seriously problematic to disastrous.  And economists are quick to point out that another 20% may be underemployed.  But even 72.8% 'fully'  employed, means that a high percentage of people in the US have jobs that fit their qualifications and they receive what some would say is appropriate remuneration for their work.

My brain can't help but wonder, why those who are fully employed (or otherwise economically secure), can't be grateful for their luck in life (to be born into a family situation that led them to be suitable employee (or entrepreneurial) material, to be born at a time when getting a job was relatively easy, having an aptitude and being prepared for the kind of job that hasn't disappeared, etc.) and ready to share a reasonable portion of their economic rewards with those who have not been so lucky. 

Of course, many of the fortunate 72.8% are willing to share.  Even among the underemployed,  there are people sharing their more limited bounty.  They recognize and act on the charitable principles of most major religions to help those less fortunate.

On the other extreme (I'm assuming a continuum) are those who see such sharing of the bounty as foolish rewarding behaviors that lead to unemployment or underemployment - impracticality (ie majoring in art or history), lack of ambition (following their bliss), lack of hard work, lack of ambition.   People like Romney seem to acknowledge economic problems make getting a job hard when attacking Obama, but for the most part, their  seem to believe when people aren't working, it's somehow their fault.  

And I admit to thoughts about people I see around me whose lifestyles exceed their incomes and who then complain when disaster hits - a spouse loses a job, or they lose the spouse, or the housing or stock markets drop.  Relatively few Americans, it seems, given our levels of debt and savings - even before the economy tanked - are able to arrange their lives with the future in mind.  And there are those people who expect, when starting out, to live a lifestyle that took their parents 25 years to reach, without having to work too hard or at all.  It's tempting to ask, "Am I supposed to share from what I saved by living below my means while they spent freely?"  Yes, I identify with the ant more than the grasshopper. And I don't feel an obligation to help anyone maintain an above average lifestyle.  But I tend away from judging and lean to questions about what in their lives caused them to have these expectations and work habits and how do we create a society in which most kids are raised to be able to succeed?  (I'm leaving the definition of succeed wide open here.)

Nevertheless, if we are, as Romney proclaimed in his 47% speech, "the most prosperous nation in history," how is it that we can't take care of those who, for whatever reason, aren't able to make it in the US?  Why can't we provide minimal immediate emergency assistance now, and good schooling and childhood health care for the long run? 

I know, I know, it's complicated.  And Romney will tell us he is compassionate and his path to helping these people is by freeing the market to create jobs.  He sees the waste and inefficiency in government, but not the waste and inefficiency and inequity of the free market.  Neither is perfect.  Both can go terribly wrong.  But each needs the other as a complement, in the right balance.  And that is, perhaps, the crux of the difference between those who swing to the left and those who swing to the right - where they see the right balance.

But, I allowed this post to get hijacked.  Yes, my title focused on the the glass 92.2% full or 7.8% empty question.

But I did want to use this as an example of a recurring problem -   how we as individuals, and collectively as societies,  so often focus on the wrong thing and how that can  distort reality.  The media's constant use of the unemployment figure, instead of the employment figure is one example.

Another comes from Steven Pinker's book The Better Angels of Our Nature which argues that overall, violence is declining historically, but because the media focus on acts of individual and group violence, our perception is that we have become more violent.

I haven't read the book and there is criticism.  And from what I understand, he focuses on the number of people killed in relation to the total population.  That itself, may be a similar distortion.  I understand why it's important to frame things that way.  But even if killings/100,000 people is down, our increased population could mean that more people are killed than in history.  (I don't know that, I need to read more of what he writes.)

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