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What Walking Into a Trap Looks Like
It’s March 29, 2022, and today’s newsletter comprises some thoughts about the unemployment rate, and the importance of being able recognize a trap.
Low unemployment and a labor shortage
This is what walking into a trap looks like
Numbers, links, and faces
Low unemployment and a labor shortage
The unemployment rate is back down to 3.9%, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Good news from the Labor Department last week: Jobless claims tallied 187,000, a 50-year low, and a decrease of 28,000 from the previous week. Given where we were two years ago, that’s pretty damn amazing. As such, the unemployment rate hit 3.9%.
By that measure, we’re back to where we were pre-pandemic. While that’s all well and good, it is important to keep everything in perspective. The unemployment rate — the one that is widely reported, any way — doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story.
Many people may see a number like 3.9% and assume that it’s a measure of the population that is not working — they’re confusing it with the labor force participation rate, which, currently, is around 63%. And in terms of how the government measures unemployment, it’s what’s called “U-6.” The reported rate (again, currently tallying 3.9%) is “U-3.”
Here’s what the labor force participation rate looks like:
The government has different ways to measure unemployment. The labor force participation rate, or U-6, is the most broad. And we generally stick with U-3 because it counts people who are out of work and who are looking for a job.
It wouldn’t make sense to count people who aren’t working because they are, say, retired, or in school full-time, as unemployed, right? It’s people like that who skew the U-6 numbers, and which doesn’t make it very useful try and take the temperature of the labor market.
So, why bring this up? Because the very low unemployment rate (3.9%) seems at odds with what we’re all hearing about out there: A labor shortage. That shortage is a result of many things, including (but not limited to):
COVID killed ~1 million people in the U.S. over the past two years.
Ongoing health issues from COVID may be keeping an additional 1.1 million people from working.
The pandemic caused an additional 2.4 million early retirements (as of August 2021).
Roughly 2 million women left the workforce to care for their children and other reasons since the start of the pandemic.
Extended and boosted unemployment benefits may have played a role, but it’s unclear how big of a role (states that ended those benefits early saw little effect on job growth). We may have to wait for more data.
Add it all up, and we have a smaller workforce, fewer workers, and a labor shortage. But again, among the people who fit into the U-3 unemployment measurement, only 3.9% of them are unemployed.
That’s how we end up with low unemployment, and a labor shortage at the same time. This is one of the weirdest labor markets we’ve seen in modern times: One with too few workers, not too few jobs.
What walking into a trap looks like
Sometimes, the only winning move is to not play.
In the U.S., a lot of jobs, frankly, suck. They’re physically demanding. They offer little, if anything, in the way of benefits or flexibility. The people who work them are often treated like garbage by management and customers alike. And, of course, they tend to pay little.
These are often service jobs — jobs in restaurants, hotels, and the like — which is one area of the economy that has seen a huge swath of workers high-tail it to different types of work. For instance, 1 million of the 4.5 million people who quit their jobs in November worked in restaurants and hotels. A lot of them aren’t going to come back, either. Data shows that many are finding jobs in offices, becoming teachers, or otherwise finding jobs in completely different sectors (many of which have their own problems).
Suffice it to say that that since workers are willing to straight-up walk away from these jobs, even after pandemic-related unemployment and relief programs dried up, is indicative that perhaps, as a country, we could use some reform in terms of how we work.
That was the primary motivation behind the “anti-work” movement. There’s a lot to it, but essentially, the movement (if you want to call it that) gained traction on Reddit, and comprised a lot of people discussing terrible work conditions, and the need for some broad-based reform. At least initially — it may have changed since then.
Of course, the name “anti-work” is off-putting to a lot of people, even if many people may agree with the underlying premise — a lot like how “defund the police” was an idea to give more funding to social workers and other groups to help police officers deal with recurring societal issues by offloading the to someone else.
So, as the movement gained traction, it started catching people’s attention. So much so that major media started talking about it. That’s when Fox News personality Jessie Waters invited one of the moderators of Reddit’s anti-work subreddits on for an interview.
Now, again, I would assume that many Fox News viewers would probably agree with the goals behind the movement. But many of them, just hearing the name “anti-work,” were already approaching it with pitchforks in hand. As such, the moderator who went on TV for the interview had a chance to thoroughly explain what they were doing, why it was important, and why other people should be interested in the movement’s goals.
That’s not what happened. Take a look:
Given that the whole “anti-work” thing had picked up a lot of steam, it clearly resonated with a lot of people. This person had one big opportunity to really drive it home, to make a great argument to an audience that was, perhaps unbeknownst to them, sympathetic.
And they blew it. They walked into a trap. This person went on national television and said “laziness is a virtue.” Just as Watters hoped that they would. Not only that, but this person looked like hell, couldn’t be bothered to put on a shirt or even pick up clutter behind them.
It made the whole “movement” look like a joke, and the fallout from the resulting thread on Reddit makes that clear. Here are some of the top comments:
“Well that was uncomfortable.”
“Why the hell is a mod doing interviews with Fox News?? This seems like a bad move all around.”
“Why did you take this interview. Jesus fucking Christ.”
“FoxNews knows exactly what they are doing and wanted this exact person to represent the subreddit. This was not a mistake.”
That last comment, I think, hits the nail on the head. Watters and his producers knew what they were doing. They laid a trap, this person walked right into it — either being too arrogant or foolish to realize what they were doing — and was subsequently ripped to shreds on national TV. All the while, dragging down any chance that the anti-work people may have had at generating meaningful discourse.
I couldn’t help but be reminded of a scene from The Newsroom, in which a woman representing Occupy Wall Street walks into a similar situation, after being warned against it:
Again, in this scene, there are some real underlying issues to be addressed. But, well, you saw what happens. And at the end of the clip above, the truth really comes through, when a sympathetic producer (played by Dev Patel), trying to calm down the character from OWS, tells her straight up: “He [the character played by Jeff Daniels] didn’t do anything to you. You tanked.”
While I think that Occupy Wall Street did have a lasting effect, I think the important thing to take away from the anti-work interview here is that these types of movements are easy to snuff out. This one person did an interview, and just like that, any chance of creating meaningful discourse about work reform is extinguished.
Any opponent merely has to point to the 30-something professional dog walker who extols the virtues of laziness on national TV and ask, “is this what you agree with?”
With that, we could all learn to recognize a trap. We’re not all cut out to be on TV. To be the spokespeople for whatever cause we believe in. It’s not easy. That’s why there are professionals that do it for a living.
If we do receive the call, for god’s sake, clean yourself up, get your talking points in order, and be well aware that you’re going to be fighting on enemy turf, and that they’re going to try and railroad you.
It’s a game, and sometimes it may be best to not play until conditions are more favorable. In the case of this anti-work representative (or whatever we want to call them), that would’ve involved setting their ego aside, thinking for a second about what they were agreeing to do, and why Jesse Watters was extending that invitation to his show in the first place.
The winning move, in this case, was to not play.
Numbers, Links, and Faces
31.9%: The percentage of the U.S. workforce that earns less than $15 per hour. (Oxfam America)
$257,500: The average bonus paid to employees of the securities industry in New York, a record, and an increase of 20% year-over-year. (Office of the New York State Comptroller)
What’s happening in Ukraine: This daily assessment of the Russian invasion of Ukraine paints a pretty bleak picture for the aggressors, and is really interesting to keep up to date with what’s happening in Europe. (Institute For the Study of War)
Cancel op-eds?: Here’s a thought: “It’s time to cancel the very concept of the newspaper editorial.” (The Message Box)
Peanut butter sandwich: A spy stole nuclear secrets from the Navy, and tried to hide them in a peanut butter sandwich. It didn’t work. (The New York Times)
Frowny Face: It’s a good thing that we’re sort of moving on from the pandemic, but we may be doing so just a bit too fast. (The Atlantic)
Smiley Face: Mackenzie Scott, Jeff Bezos’ ex-wife, gave $436 million to Habitat for Humanity and 84 of its U.S. affiliates. (The Guardian)
That’s all, folks. See you next week.