Oh, the Humanity

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Hands raised(Image: Hands raised via Shutterstock)If CNN devoted even a hundredth as much time covering our hijacked economy as it does covering that missing airplane, we might just be getting somewhere and afflicting the comfortable. But, since a marathon reality show featuring an international scavenger hunt with overtones of terror, intrigue, and anguish is proving to be a ratings magnet, the most trusted name in news is only too happy to sate our appetites. The Saga of Flight MH370 must and will take dramatic precedence over that other truly epic humanitarian crisis playing out right now, in our own backyard. That’s because unrelenting coverage by cable news of the tragedy of chronic, soul-killing, suicide-inducing mass unemployment would likely be box office poison.

But to be fair to CNN, they did run a story on depression, suicide and joblessness in 2012.

Jobless people themselves would probably just as soon forget their own woes. Between interviews to nowhere and staring at their silent phones, they too can sit glued to the TV, watching stories of people even more missing-in-action and possibly dead than themselves. That is, if they still have cable, given the rapid rise in subscription rates. But just in case they’re couch-surfing at a connected friend’s or relative’s, they can at least feel grateful to be alive and situated on dry land where they can be found if needed — economically disposable as they’ve been deemed to be.

There were 239 people aboard that ill-fated airplane. We have learned the life stories of just about every single one of them in the past couple of weeks.

There are now some 5.66 million missing workers in the United States, neither counted nor accounted for. To notice them would be to raise the unemployment rate to at least 10%, up from the official 6.5%. And that would not jibe with the narrative of “the recovery.”

Although the human wreckage of poverty and unemployment is littered all over the American landscape, how it got there in the first place (plutocratic greed and political corruption) is not an exciting mystery, requiring detection of the prized black box with expensive high tech toys and satellite imagery. The detritus has been out there in plain sight and hearing for so long that it’s become either ignored background noise, or just part of the decor.

The popular style of understated catastrophe, which took off like a shot around 2008, has for all practical purpose just been dubbed Shabby Sober New Normal Chic by a group of Ivy League fashion critics. From the Los Angeles Times:

In a sobering new study, three Princeton economists found that only 11% of the long-term unemployed in any given month found full-time work a year later.

(snip)

Despite an improving economy, the proportion of people who have been unemployed for more than six months still exceeds the previous peak set in the early 1980s, the economists said. That’s why the overall unemployment rate is still well above average.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of people unemployed 27 weeks or longer rose by 203,000 in February, reaching 3.8 million.

(snip)

New in the paper was a more detailed breakdown of who exactly makes up this group. The economists found that in 2012:

— More than 30% of those out of work for extended periods are 50 or older, compared with 20% of the short-term unemployed.

— 55% of the long-term unemployed are men.

— 44% of the long-term unemployed have never been married and nearly 20% are either widowed, separated or divorced.

— Blacks represent 22% of the long-term unemployed, a rate higher than their share of the population.

— More than half of the long-term unemployed are white.

Oh, and if you’re over the age of 50 and have been out of work for awhile, you might as well forget about ever getting another job for the rest of your life. Not that you really matter in the grand scheme of things, or so coldly proclaim the Three Fashionistas of the New Normal Study. And since they’re part of the Establishment (Alan Krueger worked in the Obama administration) they hasten to add that miserable Americans are still not as badly off as the crushed Europeans. And there is even more than a hint of that dreaded “lack of skills” labor supply-side bunkum excuse in their report, designed (inadvertently of course) to make the miserable feel even worse and the architects of the misery more complacent as they continue to rake in more than 90% of the gains made in the “recovery.”

Interspersed among the myriad charts, graphs and mathematical formulae from the centrist Brookings Institution report is some rather condescending language, seeming to put the onus on the worker rather than the boss: (parentheses mine)

Even in good times, (sniffs, looks down nose) the long-term unemployed are on the margins of the labor market, (real lowlife fringe-dwellers, they) with diminished job prospects and high labor force withdrawal rates, (what else can you expect from impotent withdrawal-prone Marginals?) and as a result they exert little pressure (they’re diminished!) on wage growth or inflation. (They never counted anyway, so why are we even bothering with this purely academic exercise? Because the plutocrats running this establishment pay us handsomely to so expertly say what they want to hear, that’s why!)

And what a lot of them want to hear is another excuse to not extend unemployment benefits for more than two million long-term jobless people.

According to Krueger and Co., there’s also that annoying historical tendency of the Marginals to just up and quit their jobs:

Although the long-term unemployed have about a one in ten chance of moving into employment in any given month, when they do return to work their new jobs are often transitory. (itinerant, hobo-ish) After 15 months, the long-term unemployed are more than twice as likely to have withdrawn (they studiously avoid saying laid off, fired, aged out, became sick or were injured) from the labor force than to have settled into steady, full-time employment. And when they exit (without, apparently, a swift kick in the butt from their boss to help them on their way) the labor force, the long-term unemployed tend to say that they no longer want a job, suggesting that many labor force exits could be enduring. (once a quitter, always a quitter.)

Words matter. And this is the part about the subset of the chronically unemployed that the moralizing Caligula Caucus will most likely pounce upon. Congress, of course, is now in the throes of debating unemployment benefit extensions. As long as there are some lazy bums who are deliberately quitting jobs and are unlikely to ever to work again for the rest of their lives, why extend the help? As Paul Ryan might say, it only encourages them to remain strung out in their hammocks of dependency. The sadistic lower House is balking at even a brief stay of execution, despite the outrageous CEO-friendly Senate compromise allowing employers to “temporarily” withhold contributions to current workers’ pension plans and the additional regressive tax on airline travelers.

Although the Brookings charts do show that educated, professional people are just as likely suffer prolonged unemployment as the less educated, the authors of the study for some reason do not include these findings in their coldly written summary. Nowhere do we hear a story about the 50-something engineer laid off from a Fortune 500 company a year ago, and who has since given up even looking for work because of untreated clinical depression. Instead, according to the wonkishly dry economic report, he has “exited the work force” and has a “tendency” to not even want a job. He and millions of people like him shall remain nameless as they are rendered into statistical insignificance.

The Social Darwinist subtext goes something like this: if we simply ignore the chronically unemployed, they will magically disappear from our radar screen. No more pings, no more blips. As Binyamin Applebaum of the New York Times puts it,

The basic argument made by the new paper, and others like it, is that the long-standing relationship between movements in inflation and unemployment, which appeared to break down during the Great Recession and its aftermath, can be restored by writing off long-term unemployment. The Phillips curve, a description of this relationship, predicted a decline of one percentage point per year between 2009 and 2013. The actual average was just 0.2 percentage points.

Adjust for – which is to say, ignore – long-term unemployment and voila! The difference almost completely vanishes.

And President Obama and Congress are not about to pledge the full bureaucratic or financial support of the United States government to search for and rescue this particular group of vanished, doomed, expendable passengers. Looking for miniscule glints of metal in a million-square mile locus, though? That, says the president, is now “among America’s top priorities.”

There isn’t an ocean too deep, or a mountain so high it can keep them away…. away from thumping their chests and strutting their all-American exceptional stuff in their never-ending quest to become CNN Heroes.