Each month, BLS employees fan out across America and knock on the doors of the 50,000 households in the BLS sample. They ask questions of the persons in the household [if they are there and are willing to talk -- another complicated practical problem for which the BLS has devised elaborate solutions -- see their literature.] "Were you employed last month? For how many hours a week? At what wage? If you are not now employed, have you looked for work in the last month?"
This last question is the crucial one. The BLS considers people to be "in the labor force" only if they are currently employed or have looked for work in the last month. At one point, the BLS broadened the definition to include people who had looked for work in the last two months. But this, as they well know, does not capture the phenomenon of the "discouraged worker," someone who looked for work, failed to find work, finally grew discouraged and stopped looking, but would start looking again if he or she thought there was any chance of finding something. So the BLS started generating a second set of figures measuring a different, expanded, and -- in bad times -- obviously much larger group of people who could, by some plausible conception, be thought of as "unemployed."
Stop and reflect, for a moment, on the set of images that lie implicit in this conception of unemployment. Imagine a town in which the major employer is Acme Manufacturing, which runs the big plant on the edge of town. Acme lays off 2,000 workers -- mostly men, of course -- who make a half-hearted attempt to find other jobs and then sit at home, waiting for word that Acme is hiring again. When the BLS representative comes to the door, the man in the house says that he has not looked for work in thirty days. The BLS rep checks off the "not unemployed" box. Then things look up and Acme starts hiring. It is not a large town, and word spreads like wildfire. All the former workers go down to the loading dock looking for work. The BLS rep asks the same question, and is told, "I looked yesterday." The "unemployed" box is checked. Then he is taken back on, and next time, the BLS rep checks off "employed."
But this image no longer really fits the current reality. More often than not, when the Acmes of this world lay off workers, they are outsourcing the jobs, which never come back. In a service economy or information economy, jobs in the local factory are a dwindling proportion of the totality of jobs in America. So the assumptions on which the concept of "unemployment" is constructed must be revised, reconsidered, or perhaps even -- as we shall see -- rejected.
Everyone who works with these figures understands all of this. It is why, when the economy starts to get going after a recession, unemployment at first goes UP. Laid-off workers who had stopped looking for work start looking again, but are not yet hired.
Lying behind these figures on employed workers, unemployed workers, discouraged workers, and all the rest are a set of competing theoretical and ideological conceptions about the nature of labor in the economy, and despite the endless discussions of the unemployment rate, these underlying conceptions rarely get brought to the surface and discussed openly. Indeed, I think it is fair to say that most economists and sociologists, no matter what their technical sophisticated, are not even aware of these questions and have never thought about them. So I am going to talk about them for a while, as a way of showing you how deeply embedded our conceptions of society are in normative ideological presuppositions. That is really the message of this entire series of posts, as I indicated earlier.
Let me spend a few moments talking about three quite different organizations of the role of work in society. I will identify these, fancifully, with three different families -- the Waltons, the Galts, and the Marxes [you must forgive me -- it is five minutes to six in the morning as I write these words, and my gravitas filter is not yet fully operational.] Each of these families represents a different conception of work in society, which we might also call the pre-capitalist, capitalist, and socialist conceptions. [For you youngsters, the Waltons are a depression era rural family in a wonderful old television night time series of the same name. For you lefties, John Galt is the Ayn Rand hero of her novel ATLAS SHRUGGED, now the bible of serious right-wing libertarians. The Marxes are, of course, the Karl Marxes, although, as is well known, Marx led a thoroughly bourgeois life, albeit from time to time an impecunious one.]
The Waltons live in rural Virginia, on Walton's Mountain. They are a three generational family, consisting of Grandpa and Grandma Walton [Grandpa played by the wonderful old actor, Will Geer], John and Olivia Walton, and their seven children, most notably John-Boy, who is the narrator and central figure. [The actor who plays John Walton, Ralph Waite, resurfaced not long ago as Agent Leroy Jethroe Gibbs' father in an episode of NCIS. It was an inspired casting choice.] John and Grandpa operate a sawmill, and the family does some farming and raising of chickens and such. The story is built on the life-cycle conception of the human condition, with people at every stage in that cycle save infancy. Everyone in the extended family has some economic role to play, and everyone's labor is needed if the family is to survive hard times during the Depression. John and Grandpa run the sawmill, and John-Boy, the oldest child, helps. The younger children perform subordinate economic roles either on the farm or in the house. Without labor-saving electric appliances, there is a good deal of work to be done just making meals and maintaining the household, and all the women from Grandma to the youngest daughter contribute their efforts [the traditional gender division is irrelevant to my point here, so let us not have a lot of huffing and puffing about it.] When the actress playing Grandma had a stroke, this was written into the story, and she returned to continue playing Grandma, her role in the household chores diminished BUT NOT ELIMINATED.
In the world defined by the Waltons' extended family, there is no such thing as "unemployment." There are good times and bad, determined principally by whether there is a demand for the services of the sawmill, but no one is "laid off." What is more, there are no sharp lines dividing the start and the end of the part of life when one "works." Grandpa and Grandma are, no doubt, of retirement age by modern standards, but they do not retire. As they age, the quantity and nature of productive labor required of them changes. At the other end, the children have chores as soon as they are old enough to perform them, and unlike chores in a modern upscale nuclear family, these chores are an essential component of the productive activity of the extended family unit. Although none of them has ever heard of Karl Marx, they organize their lives in accordance with the slogan that Marx imagines emblazoned on the banners carried by workers into the Revolution: "From each according to his ability. To each according to his need."
Well, this is developing into something not quite of book length but a good deal longer than an answer to a question on a blog. I am just going to assume people are interested. If I haven;t hooked you yet, I figure I never will. Tomorrow the Galts.