Fooled by What We Measure, Enlightened by What We Don't Measure

Economists and pundits steer well clear of the eventual social and political consequences of America’s entrenched neofeudal wealth-income inequality.

Economists and pundits are falling all over themselves to declare the US is chugging along splendidly, and to express their frustration with the public for their curmudgeonly lack of enthusiasm. For example: If this is a bad economy, please tell me what a good economy would look like We should acknowledge that things are going well, even as we continue to look for problems to solve and How the Recession Doomers Got the U.S. Economy So Wrong.

My intention is not to slam Noah Smith or Derek Thompson. I follow their work and gain value from their analysis.

The point I want to make is we only manage what we measure, and the reliance on statistics that are overly broad and easily distorted/gamed leads to generalizations that ignore consequential cause and effect: we are fooled by overly broad and easily distorted/gamed statistics and enlightened by looking at what is not measured or measured inadequately.

The consensus holds that inflation is declining rapidly and unemployment remains low, so the economy is doing great. Please glance at Chart #1 below to see what enthuses the mainstream: the unemployment rate is near historic lows.

But this measure leaves out a great deal of consequential factors. It’s well-known that the unemployment rate is distorted / gamed by leaving out everyone who is in the workforce but not “actively seeking work.” So what does this official unemployment rate actually measure? Not the percentage of the workforce that has a job.

Nor does it measure underemployment–those working far below their potential–or job insecurity or the percentage of workers being pushed into burnout–all consequential reflections of the real economy. All of these are potentially causal factors in why US productivity has fallen so dramatically.

And speaking of productivity, that’s the ultimate source of prosperity–not speculative bubbles or debt-binging. If productivity is tanking, eventually there are negative economic consequences that will be distributed to some segments of the populace, very likely asymmetrically.

Such a broad-brush measure also ignores the consequences of demographics. Please glance at chart #2 below, of the 55 and over population and workforce. Note that virtually all the 20+ million jobs the US economy added in the past two decades are in this older workforce, which is of course steaming steadily into retirement, even as the percentage of this cohort who continues working has soared.

In other words, virtually all the job growth is the result of older workers working longer. Yes, 70 is the new 50, but try doing the same work at 70 that you did when you were 50. Sure, some people forego retirement because they love their work so much, but we don’t measure how many are still working because they have to for pressing financial reasons.

Have you observed the age of service workers and skilled workers recently? Do you reckon they really love working at Burger King so much that they’re doing it for enjoyment?

What if we measured financial pressures and job insecurity rather than risibly bogus “unemployment”? Would the economy still look so wonderful and resilient?

Chart #3 shows that virtually all the population growth ahead is in the cohort of older workers 65+ years old heading into retirement. So the workforce is rapidly aging and the unspoken / unexamined assumption is tens of millions of new workers will enter the workforce with the same skills, motivation, dedication and values as the tens of millions retiring.

But the demographics simply don’t support this breezy assumption.

Now glance at chart #4 which depicts the extraordinary rise in the number of workers who are now disabled. The causes of this are being debated (the pandemic obviously plays a role), but 2.5 million workers leaving the workforce in a few years is something that could be consequential if the trend continues. An assumption that this is a one-off is baseless until proven otherwise.

Once again, demographics, productivity and factors such as disability and burnout are not part of the unemployment, GDP and inflation measures currently being touted as proof of economic nirvana.

Read the Whole Article