Economy & Innovation
8:43 pm
Mon March 17, 2014

Economy & Innovation Rundown: Unemployment And Fun With Numbers

As a journalist, I admit that I am guilty of loving the monthly Bureau of Labor Statistics report about the unemployment rate. I love it because it’s a clear cut report with hard numbers that seem to tell a story we can all understand; a story that says “this number of people are officially unemployed. That’s down from last month, which means the economy is getting better.”  

Credit (Credit: Flickr/Andreas Klinke Johannsen

Simple, right?

But then I read this article on Slate.com and feel duly chastised. The unemployment numbers are an oversimplification, the article says.

To be honest, I’ve long known that citing an unemployment rate doesn’t truly reflect how many people are working and how many people aren’t.  There are all the people who aren’t counted because they aren’t filing for unemployment anymore; there are people who are working part time and can’t file for unemployment, but they probably don’t consider themselves fully employed; and there are the people making money without reporting it who also aren’t counted as employed.

The Slate article point out all of those fallacies about the unemployment numbers and then some. What’s more, it points out that the very nature of our economy these days renders the unemployment rate moot:

“The employment metrics that determine the size of the labor force depend on a very 20th-century definition of what it means to have a job or to be looking for one, i.e., you have looked for a job in the past four weeks and haven’t found one. That means that anyone who is entrepreneurial doesn’t count. It also means that anyone looking for longer eventually “drops out” of the labor force (statistically speaking, at least) and becomes “marginally attached to the labor force,” “discouraged,” or simply not part of the labor force at all.”

So, does this mean we will stop reporting on the monthly unemployment rate? Probably not. But it certainly means that when we do, we’ll take into consideration all the stories that the numbers do not tell.

In a similar vein, St. Joseph, Mo.’s newspaper, the News-Press looked at how St. Joseph has fared 20 years after the start of NAFTA (that’s the North American Free Trade Agreement, for those who don’t recall). NAFTA had promised to improve the economy, promote trade, preserve the environment … everything short of warding off an alien invasion. 

According to a report cited in the News-Press story, the promise has been a boon to some, but not most. For the area’s agriculture industry NAFTA has been good. The article sites a member of the Missouri Corn Growers Association as saying NAFTA’s been good for corn, distillers’ grains and meat production. But for those employed in manufacturing, NAFTA’s been a bust. Buchanon County suffered “the second highest job losses in Missouri,” the story says.

We can’t entirely blame NAFTA for our unemployment troubles. In some ways, we should blame our own ingenuity.

In an article that made me think, “The future is here and it’s scary.” The Chicago Tribune reported on a study that finds broad evidence for all the ways that technology is eliminating the need for certain professionals. 

We’ve already seen this happen to typists, to travel agents, to some manufacturing jobs. But this article takes the idea one step further. Two academics looked at the probability that a computer could automate the work of more than 700 occupations.

“They first looked at detailed descriptions for 70 of those jobs and classified them as either possible or impossible to computerize. Frey and Osborne then fed that data to an algorithm that analyzed what kind of jobs make lend themselves to automation and predicted probabilities for the remaining 632 professions.

The higher that percentage, the sooner computers and robots will be capable of stepping in for human workers. Occupations that employed about 47 percent of Americans in 2010 scored high enough to rank in the risky category, meaning they could be possible to automate "perhaps over the next decade or two," their analysis, released in September, showed.”

Yikes! The researchers found that technology can take over the work of loan officers, litigators and even journalists!  

If you think I'm kidding about the journalism, check out this Slate article about how a "Quakebot" broke the news about Monday's Los Angeles earthquake. Scary.

Let me assure you, I am not an automaton.

If I were, would I have been so thoughtful as to make pies for my co-workers this past Friday, March 14, to celebrate what is known as Pi Day (because the month and date could be written out as 3.14… like the Greek letter that represents the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter)? A computer cannot do that.

Apparently, I am not the only person who gets a kick out of such mathematical quirks. The St. Louis Business Journal reported that the good people at Pi Pizzeria experienced a sales boost on March 14 because everyone loves pie in whatever shape or flavor they can find it.

One last thought: if I were a computer, would I have a calendar by my desk that said this to me during the month of February?

From the writer's Demotivational Calendar, 2014
Credit (Credit: Shula Neuma)