The Emperor’s New Clothes and the New Economy

Some weeks back, the Dow enjoyed a sharp upswing, prompt­ing a net­work news program’s giddy obser­va­tion that “until today, the U.S. econ­omy was on a roller coaster.”

Which struck me as an odd sort of thing to say in light of the fact that such dizzy­ing ups—and downs—are what define roller coast­ers. Was I miss­ing some­thing? I checked in with some well-informed friends, who quickly con­firmed my reac­tion. (And, indeed, in the next few days, stocks plunged once again.)

All of which is to say that over the past few years, I’ve started to feel more and more like the kid in “The Emperor’s New Clothes”—the one who inter­rupts a parade of pur­ported royal fin­ery to say that the emperor is naked. The fact that I’m hardly an expert in eco­nomic affairs makes it all the more dis­turb­ing that I’m so often right.

I got to think­ing about this once again as yesterday’s New York Times her­alded the addi­tion of 200,000 jobs to the U.S. labor force last month. “Maybe it is time to start call­ing the glass half full,” the report began.

Really? Because, as the Times notes fur­ther down, the gains are still not enough to restore employ­ment to pre­re­ces­sion lev­els (for more on this, see Paul Krugman’s post on the same topic), and the accepted broad mea­sure of unem­ploy­ment is still a whop­ping 15.2%.

Moreoever—and here’s my real gripe—this story, along with the vast major­ity of oth­ers, vir­tu­ally ignores the fun­da­men­tal ques­tion of how much these new jobs pay.  A job doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean a liv­ing wage—just ask the 30% of all work­ing fam­i­lies earn­ing less than 200 per­cent of the offi­cial poverty thresh­old.

For a bit more per­spec­tive, con­sider the fact that the vast major­ity of new jobs cre­ated dur­ing the so-called recov­ery have been in occu­pa­tions pay­ing a mea­ger 7.51 to $13.52 an hour, accord­ing to a 2011 report by the National Employ­ment Law Project. At the same time, job losses were con­cen­trated at the high end. (Kudos to Steven Green­house for his inci­sive sum­ma­tion of these find­ings last July in the New York Times’ Economix blog.)

In other words:  Good-bye sta­ble middle-class job. Hello, McDonald’s.

The obses­sive focus of main­stream media—including, sadly, my beloved NPR—on job cre­ation num­bers with­out due atten­tion to  job qual­ity is hardly the only aspect of our eco­nomic dis­course that strikes me as being on a col­li­sion course with com­mon sense. Equally mys­te­ri­ous is how rarely we seem to ques­tion the belief that eco­nomic growth is some­how the key to wide­spread well-being.

In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Look­ing Glass, the Red Queen famously dis­misses Alice’s claim that she can’t believe impos­si­ble things. “I dare­say you haven’t had much prac­tice,” the Queen air­ily responds. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, some­times I’ve believed as many as six impos­si­ble things before breakfast.”

I can’t help but feel that this tal­ent is in increas­ingly high demand. In par­tic­u­lar, I’m think­ing of oft-heard asser­tions that older work­ers will sim­ply need to work longer (even though it’s well-established that theirs are among the most intractable cases of long-term unem­ploy­ment) and that, given the pre­car­i­ous state of Social Secu­rity, not to men­tion our dec­i­mated 401(ks), we all just need to save more (even though many of us are hard-pressed sim­ply to get by).

While I myself have only a pass­ing famil­iar­ity with eco­nomic con­cepts, I’m for­tu­nate to count among my friends some who study and teach such things, and I often turn to them for ques­tions or help mak­ing sense of data. I’m hop­ing that after they read this piece, they’ll tell me that I’m wrong. But based on past expe­ri­ence, I’m not exactly count­ing on it.

Note: The  quote in the first sen­tence of this post is a para­phrase from memory.

Edited 1/8/12: to add “(for more on this, see Paul Krugman’s post on the same topic)”