MARCUS: The economy is better, but pain persists

Morton Marcus
May 15, 2010
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Morton Marcus

“What we need from you,” the TV news producer said, “is a quick look at the unemployment numbers. It should seem you’ve done lots of research on this and are digging deep to give us the lowdown. Of course, we don’t have time for real depth, but a scowl and a slight twitch will cover that.”

I practiced scowling and twitching. Unemployment numbers come out monthly and the news media cover them as diligently as violations of selected commandments. Not only do we get the national numbers, but we get state and county numbers as well. It’s a feast without nutrition attended by the entire country. After all, these local numbers can send federal dollars to your hometown or, if they are bad enough, get you a visit by the president and the national press corps.

“What’s the big headline in the latest numbers?” the producer asked. “Give me the good news.”

“From March 2009 to March this year …,” I started.

“No dates,” the producer said. “Information overload. Give it to us nude.”

I blushed, but pressed on.

“A year ago, every Indiana county had fewer employed people than a year earlier. Now, the good news is that 26 of Indiana’s 92 counties have more residents employed and fewer unemployed than they did a year ago. These might be called the bounce-back counties.”

(I didn’t point out that 66 counties failed to have such improvements. Let this ‘communications’ major figure that out privately.)

“Wow,” the producer wowed. “Bounce-back. You’ve a flair for this. Tell us the names of a few of these bounce-back counties.”

“Kosciusko and Knox,” I said. “Cass, Lawrence, and Jay are also on the list.”

“What about places we know?” the producer asked.

“Well,” I thought aloud, “Marshall, Noble and Adams are all on that list, but the news just isn’t as good there as elsewhere.”

“How’s that?” the producer puzzled. “Employment up and unemployment down, but that’s not good news?”

“Take LaGrange County for example,” I offered. “The number of persons employed rose by 400 and the number unemployed dropped by 1,100. What happened? It appears that 700 unemployed people stopped looking for work and left the labor force. Maybe they moved out of the county. Maybe they went back to school. Maybe they stayed home watching your news broadcasts and the weather channel. We don’t know.”

“Enough, enough,” the producer said. “Our anchor is going to ask you about the state. Say something cheerful.”

“Indiana,” I said, “is off its peak number of employed persons by less than 10 percent.” (I didn’t mention that we were talking about 284,000 people, or that we just had the worst kind of year.)

“What was that? You said something under your breath. Tell me,” the producer insisted.

“You’re sure?” I asked, going on without waiting for an answer. “In March this year, 97,500 fewer Hoosiers held jobs and 15,200 fewer were looking for work than in that month a year ago. This means we saw 112,700 fewer people in our labor force. They didn’t all retire? Did they? They weren’t all sick?

“This is no longer news; this is an ongoing calamity. We just went through a political primary without hearing any pertinent thoughts about what to do as a state or a nation. Six months from now, half of the remaining candidates will be elected to office after promising to deliver what they cannot. All during the campaign, and after, you’ll broadcast their messages because you have no idea of what is important and no respect for your audience.”

“Ya’ know,” the producer said, “I don’t think we’ll be able to use you today after all.”•


Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mmarcus@ibj.com.


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