Time to Resurrect the Misery Index

Brian C Joondeph
Ending a bad week for the administration dealing with the tangled and deceitful web of Benghazi revelations was the news last week of a drop in the unemployment rate. “Economy adds 288,000 jobs in April, unemployment rate falls to 6.3 percent,” crowed a headline from AP, known for their political bias.              

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that, “In April, the unemployment rate fell from 6.7 percent to 6.3 percent. One might optimistically believe that the moribund economy is Lazarus rising from the dead, finally. More cynically, one might prefer to believe that the unemployment rate is falling conveniently ahead of the midterm elections, as it falsely fell prior to the last Presidential election.

The BLS unemployment rate is calculated based on a household survey. “Persons are classified as unemployed if they do not have a job, have actively looked for work in the prior 4 weeks, and are currently available for work,” according to the BLS. Not counted are those who have given up looking for work, perhaps after months or years of fruitless effort. Also not counted are those working part time that would rather have a full time job. Lastly it doesn’t count those working in a job out of necessity that they are far over qualified for, such as the PhDs working at McDonalds.

A more useful number to look at is the labor force participation rate, meaning those of working age who are employed. According to the BLS, this rate was quite steady at 66 percent for most of the last decade until 2008. That’s when the country entered the new era of “hope and change”, when the participation rate began its steady decline. Not headline worthy in the recent jobs report is that the labor force participation rate dropped 0.4 percent to 62.8 percent, or over 92 million Americans not working. We haven’t seen this low a rate since the late 1970s.

Those who lived through the Carter Presidency will remember the misery index, “Calculated by adding together the unemployment rate and the annual inflation rate.” Suppose we calculated inflation now using the same methodology as in the 1980s? It would actually be 9 percent, compared to the official government number of 1 percent. One major difference is that energy and food prices are no longer included in inflation calculations. Convenient omission considering how gasoline prices have doubled over the past several years. Similarly, if unemployment was calculated using 1980s methodologies, it would be 23 percent, not the 6.3 percent rate reported this week. This would give us a misery index of 32, far eclipsing Jimmy Carter’s high of 20. Wonder when we might hear these numbers on the evening news. Crickets chirping…

Several months ago we were told of the virtues of loafing, how liberating it was to lose your job because of Obamacare. Now we are told the economy is improving. Politico reassures us, “Democrats have long been counting on an improving economy to help them in an otherwise challenging midterm election season. And it now looks like they could get it.” Perhaps it’s time to resurrect the misery index. Salon notes how the “Miserable economy may be ruining your love life.” It is ruining far more than that for many Americans. Republicans would be well served using the misery index to remind voters of who has been in charge of spreading the misery for the past 6 years.

Brian C Joondeph, MD, MPS, a Denver based physician, is an advocate of smaller, more efficient government. Twitter @retinaldoctor.

Ending a bad week for the administration dealing with the tangled and deceitful web of Benghazi revelations was the news last week of a drop in the unemployment rate. “Economy adds 288,000 jobs in April, unemployment rate falls to 6.3 percent,” crowed a headline from AP, known for their political bias.              

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that, “In April, the unemployment rate fell from 6.7 percent to 6.3 percent. One might optimistically believe that the moribund economy is Lazarus rising from the dead, finally. More cynically, one might prefer to believe that the unemployment rate is falling conveniently ahead of the midterm elections, as it falsely fell prior to the last Presidential election.

The BLS unemployment rate is calculated based on a household survey. “Persons are classified as unemployed if they do not have a job, have actively looked for work in the prior 4 weeks, and are currently available for work,” according to the BLS. Not counted are those who have given up looking for work, perhaps after months or years of fruitless effort. Also not counted are those working part time that would rather have a full time job. Lastly it doesn’t count those working in a job out of necessity that they are far over qualified for, such as the PhDs working at McDonalds.

A more useful number to look at is the labor force participation rate, meaning those of working age who are employed. According to the BLS, this rate was quite steady at 66 percent for most of the last decade until 2008. That’s when the country entered the new era of “hope and change”, when the participation rate began its steady decline. Not headline worthy in the recent jobs report is that the labor force participation rate dropped 0.4 percent to 62.8 percent, or over 92 million Americans not working. We haven’t seen this low a rate since the late 1970s.

Those who lived through the Carter Presidency will remember the misery index, “Calculated by adding together the unemployment rate and the annual inflation rate.” Suppose we calculated inflation now using the same methodology as in the 1980s? It would actually be 9 percent, compared to the official government number of 1 percent. One major difference is that energy and food prices are no longer included in inflation calculations. Convenient omission considering how gasoline prices have doubled over the past several years. Similarly, if unemployment was calculated using 1980s methodologies, it would be 23 percent, not the 6.3 percent rate reported this week. This would give us a misery index of 32, far eclipsing Jimmy Carter’s high of 20. Wonder when we might hear these numbers on the evening news. Crickets chirping…

Several months ago we were told of the virtues of loafing, how liberating it was to lose your job because of Obamacare. Now we are told the economy is improving. Politico reassures us, “Democrats have long been counting on an improving economy to help them in an otherwise challenging midterm election season. And it now looks like they could get it.” Perhaps it’s time to resurrect the misery index. Salon notes how the “Miserable economy may be ruining your love life.” It is ruining far more than that for many Americans. Republicans would be well served using the misery index to remind voters of who has been in charge of spreading the misery for the past 6 years.

Brian C Joondeph, MD, MPS, a Denver based physician, is an advocate of smaller, more efficient government. Twitter @retinaldoctor.