I've been trying to figure out what today's jobs report was telling us, and I have come to the conclusion that I definitely ... don't know.
Even the folks in the media seem torn on what the message is.
For example, Bloomberg.com emphasized the fact that unemployment held steady at 9.7% "and payrolls fell less than forecast."
That's kind of what BusinessWeek said. BusinessWeek wrote about the stabilizing job market — and how the winter storms that socked major population centers in the East turned what would have been a positive into a negative. That's pretty much what Barack Obama said, although he insisted that the job losses were "more than we should tolerate."
Yes, those job losses are always the fly in the ointment, aren't they?
That's the unrelenting drumbeat that is set against whatever "good" news may be contained within the jobs report these days, and I presume it is the reason that CNNMoney.com, which is frequently supportive of the president and his approach to the economy, saw the news as a mixed bag.
Friday's report was a prime example of this economy's contradictory nature. It certainly wasn't that clearcut a year ago. I guess it's been that way for more than two years now. It was just more dramatic — everyone, you may breathe a sigh of relief — through most of 2009 than it has been lately. But that doesn't mean we're out of the woods yet.
Is there any validity to the argument that, if the weather hadn't been as severe as it was in February, we wouldn't have lost as many jobs as we did? Or that jobs actually would have been created if the weather had been better? Maybe — and maybe not. In my life, I have lived through a few recessions, and I've seen many months when the weather was less than ideal — snowstorms in winter, heat waves in summer, tornado seasons, hurricane seasons, torrential rains. I may have forgotten something, but I don't recall the weather being considered a major factor contributing to increases in national joblessness. Regional joblessness, either long– or short–term, perhaps. State and local joblessness, either long– or short–term, certainly. But nationally?
Some people think "not as bad" is the same thing as "good." I don't — although I will concede that "not as bad" translates to "better than it has been." Mitt Romney, on the other hand, criticized Obama because he did not focus on job creation from the start and, therefore, had "prolonged the recession."
That doesn't necessarily suggest that the jobs report isn't evidence that we're moving in the right direction. What it is suggesting, it seems to me, is that we didn't start moving in this direction as soon as we should have.
And, on that point, at least, I would venture that Romney probably won't encounter too much opposition among the unemployed.
Whether one is a Republican or not, there appears to be a sizable segment of the electorate that agrees with Romney's assessment. And, no matter what happens, I guess there are always people who are ready to exploit an issue that may be totally unrelated to enhance their own agenda. If the economy looks grim, writes Robert Reich in Salon.com, the answer is to pass health care reform.
Well, I guess that makes more sense than the logic that prevailed in America six years ago, when many of the problems that have contributed to this disaster were percolating. There were some ominous signs in those days, and they should have been discussed in full, but the voters were distracted by a red herring — gay marriage.
Now, the senators who were elected that year are facing the voters again. This time, the Democrats are in control. Maybe health care reform will carry the day. After all, it isn't just against something. It does offer benefits that can be realized — eventually — so supporting health care reform isn't just an "anti" vote, although it certainly is against the high cost of health care. It's a "pro" vote when the question is, "Shall we lower health care costs?"
But even those who agree that health care costs need to be controlled do not agree on how to achieve that objective. And some people don't see a relationship between health care costs and joblessness.
I have a friend who has been out of work longer than I have — which, in my mind, seems like an endurance test of unimaginable proportions. In my experience, he seems to have the kind of credentials that should insulate one from a bad economy. He got his undergraduate degree in business and his graduate degree in finance.
But this economy is vicious like nothing I have ever seen. And I guess what happened to my friend should have been a warning for me. He lost his job in April of 2008, when five–digit monthly job losses were still considered catastrophic. A few months later, of course, the economic meltdown occurred, and American attitudes were radically altered. For the next 12 months, six–digit monthly job losses were routine. If the fluctuation was in the five–digit range, that hardly raised an eyebrow.
My friend has had a few nibbles in nearly two years but no offers. And I know the pressure must be even greater for him than it is for me. He's married. I'm not. He has children. I don't. His wife does work in the health care industry, though, so he benefits from her income and health coverage. I'm sure, however, that the famiily's standard of living has declined from where it was two years ago.
It amazes me that he has held up as well as he has, and I told him so. He admitted having "shaky moments," but he provided some insight as well.
"I always have to remind myself to review my history when I was down and distraught," he said. "Something better always comes from the rubble. I consider it a growth opportunity now."
There is truth in that. But it is like everything else in life, I guess. Perspectives change. When you're 20, for example, your body can do anything, absorb any blow, overcome deprivation of food or sleep much easier than one can at 30 or 40.
The most extreme example I can think of involves an old friend, whose father had polio when he was a child. He overcame that, but he had several medical crises during his life. He always bounced back, and that was the reality my friend had always known. But, finally, he reached the point where his body couldn't bounce back and he died.
Perhaps economies are like the mortals who function within them. Perhaps, after absorbing enough blows over the years, they just give out.
One hopes that the pace of national growth and recovery won't be so glacial that the economy and most of the unemployed, whether short– or long–term, won't be able to rise from the ashes, like the mythological firebird phoenix, and be reborn in a world that sometimes seems to have passed them by.