The journalist David Leonhardt has this Op Ed in the NY TIMES this morning. It is, I think, one of the most important and insightful pieces I have read in a very long time. Here is just one fact cited by Leonhardt that stood out for me. The official unemployment rate in the United States is currently just below 4%. But the percentage of men age 25-54 who are not employed is slightly below 15%.
Think about that fact. In an economy as close to official full employment as you are ever likely to see, 15% of adult men in prime wage earning years are unemployed, and two thirds of them do not even show up in the topline unemployment figures because they have simply given up looking for work.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics experts know this, of course. Their work is the source of the figures Leonhardt cites. But virtually none of the public discussions of economic affairs mention these figures, nor do these facts play any role in policy debates in Washington.
Why don't these men [and women, of course] show up in the official unemployment figures? Because those figures are generated by monthly household sampling conducted by the BLS, whose employees ask, as they go door to door, "Are you now employed full time or part time? If you are not employed, have you looked for work in the last month [or, in some surveys, two months]?"
If the answer to the first question is "no" and to the second question is "yes," the person is counted as unemployed. But if the answer to both questions is "no," the person is not counted. That person is considered not to be in the labor force.
If you think about this simple set of facts for a moment, much of contemporary politics makes much more sense.