The mainstream press is busy digesting this week’s news that the official unemployment rate has now topped 10%. For example, here is the lede in a Reuters article from Friday analyzing the current business climate:

As unemployment in the United States edges above 10 percent, anxious investors will look to earnings reports from major retailers for signs of life in the beaten-up consumer.

However, the 10% unemployment number does not do justice to the true employment picture. Here is the New York Times from Friday:

With the release of the jobs report on Friday, the broadest measure of unemployment and underemployment tracked by the Labor Department has reached its highest level in decades. If statistics went back so far, the measure would almost certainly be at its highest level since the Great Depression.

In all, more than one out of every six workers — 17.5 percent — were unemployed or underemployed in October. The previous recorded high was 17.1 percent, in December 1982.

That’s a staggering number. One in six workers is either unemployed or underemployed and we have to go all the way back to the Depression to find a time when the employment situation was worse. The current health care reform effort is underway because virtually the same fraction of our GDP is now spent on health care. The National Coalition on Health Care tells us that 17.6% of the GDP this year will go to health care. Why is there not the same level of attention when 17.5% of the workforce is unemployed or underemployed?

One of the most overlooked success stories in how our country emerged from the Depression was through jobs programs that had no "middle man". Here is the heart of a short blog post by Paul Krugman yesterday:

As it is, job-creation efforts are generally indirect. Tax cuts and transfers in the hope that people will spend them; aid to state governments in the hope of averting layoffs. Even infrastructure spending is routed through private contractors.

You can make a pretty good case that just employing a lot of people directly would be a lot more cost-effective; the WPA and CCC cost surprisingly little given the number of people put to work. Think of it as the stimulus equivalent of getting the middlemen out of the student loan program.

So why aren’t we doing this? Politics, of course: government is the problem, not the solution, even when it is, you know, the solution, and cheaper than running things through the private sector.

In just a few paragraphs, Krugman both identifies the best solution to the current problem and explains why it will never be enacted. The current political debate has been so corrupted by the corporatist ideals that "government is the problem" and that only the private sector can provide efficiency that we now are prevented enacting the eminently sensible solution of direct government jobs programs.

Never mind that the infrastructure of our country is crumbling as workers sit idle (ask anyone living in the Bay Area how their life was affected by the Bay Bridge closure when it literally broke); no, we must wait for the private sector to "recover" enough to hire more workers.

But what is the cost of these unemployed and underemployed workers? Frustration builds for them, and sometimes it explodes in horrible ways. Yesterday in Orlando, a man went into the offices of his former employer, drew a gun and killed one while injuring several others. When he was being led into the police station after being arrested, his response to reporters asking him why he committed such a terrible act was "They left me to rot".

After being fired as an engineer, Rodriguez could only find part time work in a sandwich shop. Yes, he was fired for poor performance and yes, he appears to also have had other problems, but is there a chance that in a better job environment that he might have gotten a second chance to fit into another engineering position?

Today might see a historic vote on a public option for health insurance. As Krugman asks, why not a public option for employment, too?

Because unemployment is expected to continue to rise for at least another year (the first NYTimes article linked above cites a book that suggests it will rise for two more years), it seems likely that we will see more tragedies such as yesterday’s in Orlando. Those tragedies could be lessened through a direct public jobs program, but there simply is no political will to even suggest such a plan, let alone enact it.

How many more will be left to rot?

Jim White

Jim White

Follow me on Twitter @JimWhiteGNV

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