Breadlines and Chocolate

Great news comrades! Fake US unemployment rate is down to 7.8%.

I haven’t read any “analysis” of the job numbers yet, but here’s what I know:

In general, the US needs to create at least 300,000 jobs per month just to maintain current unemployment levels. We need to create that many jobs in order to keep up with population growth and new graduates entering the available workforce pool in numbers higher than the number of retirees leaving the workforce.

Employers added 114,000 jobs in September. The September number was 86,000 lower than the August job numbers and the August numbers were lower than July’s.

Yet the “official” unemployment rate went down three-tenths of a point to 7.8%.

Does this even remotely make sense?

Three numbers—dates actually—come to mind: 1936, 1948 and 1984.

1936:
Franklin Delano Roosevelt is running for reelection as the Great Depression entered its eighth year.

Roosevelt won reelection in a landslide against a wealthy moderate Republican businessman turned governor who ran a lackluster uninspired campaign marked by bickering between the nominee and his conservative running mate and primary opponent, Frank Knox.

Despite persistent high unemployment, the majority of voters, conditioned by eight years of double-digit unemployment, began to believe the economy was finally turning around. There was evidence for optimism. Deficit spending on New Deal make-work programs leading up to the 1936 elections, helped bring down the unemployment rate to 13.7%.

But the salutary effect of Roosevelt’s spending binge was short-lived. The following year, Roosevelt tried a “balanced” approach of spending cuts and tax increases in an effort to reduce the national debt, which had doubled to 40% of GNP under his leadership. The result was a sharp economic downturn during the next two years—a Great Recession within the Great Depression, as unemployment spiked to 19.0% in 1938.

1948:
George Orwell’s futuristic dystopia 1984 is written. 1984’s protagonist, Winston Smith, works in the Ministry of Truth for the government of Oceania. His job is to rewrite old newspaper articles to ensure that the historical record would conform to the totalitarian dictatorship of Big Brother’s ever-changing propaganda announcements and official statistics.

Early on in the book, Smith is tasked to write a propaganda piece about a grateful nation thanking Big Brother for increasing the weekly chocolate ration to 20 grams. He has a moment of self-doubt in his ability to pull off this propaganda feat. Because less than a week earlier, he’d written a similar piece about how the people wildly cheered when Big Brother announced that the weekly chocolate ration would never be reduced below 30 grams. (To put this in context, a regular size Hershey bar is 43 grams.)

Winston Smith writes the propaganda piece as directed. The previous week’s article is flushed down the memory hole to an incinerator so that not even ashes remain. Smith is shocked to discover that no one—besides himself—mentions or even seems to notice the glaring contradiction.

“But actually, he thought as he re-adjusted the Ministry of Plenty’s figures, it was not even forgery. It was merely the substitution of one piece of nonsense for another. Most of the material that you were dealing with had no connection with anything in the real world, not even the kind of connection that is contained in a direct lie. Statistics were just as much a fantasy in their original version as in their rectified version. A great deal of the time you were expected to make them up out of your head. For example, the Ministry of Plenty’s forecast had estimated the output of boots for the quarter at one-hundred-and-forty-five million pairs. The actual output was given as sixty-two millions. Winston, however, in rewriting the forecast, marked the figure down to fifty-seven millions, so as to allow for the usual claim that the quota had been over-fulfilled. In any case, sixty-two millions was no nearer the truth than fifty-seven millions, or than one-hundred-and-forty-five millions. Very likely no boots had been produced at all. Likelier still, nobody knew how many had been produced, much less cared. All one knew was that every quarter astronomical numbers of boots were produced on paper, while perhaps half the population of Oceania went barefoot. And so it was with every class of recorded fact, great or small. Everything faded away into a shadow-world in which, finally, even the date of the year had become uncertain.”

1984 vs. 1Q84:
I recently finished reading Haruki Murakami’s trilogy 1Q84. The book’s title is a pun based on Orwell’s 1984 since the Japanese word for the number nine is a homonym for the letter Q. The story takes place in Tokyo in the year 1984. As the novel progresses, the protagonist, a young woman named Aomame, begins noticing both subtle differences and jarring discrepancies between what she experiences and her memory. These unsettling cognitive dissonances suggest she is not in her normal 1984 world, but in a not-quite parallel world she names 1Q84.

Another character in 1Q94, a writer named Tengo, also experiences similar unsettling paradoxes between perception and reality or between perception and memory. While riding on a train to another town, he reads a story called The Town of Cats about a young man riding a train who gets off at an unfamiliar stop. The next train passes and does not stop, the next one doesn’t stop either. He goes into town and finds it still functioning, yet completely abandoned. There are sidewalks, buildings and shops, but no people to be found. When the last train fails to stop, the young man has no choice but to spend the night in the abandoned town. As the sun starts goes down, cats of all different breeds and colors, but much larger than ordinary cats, begin to arrive in the town and being nocturnal, go about their business in the dark town. The frightened traveler hides in a clock tower until the next morning when the cats vanish as mysteriously as they arrived. When the train comes the next morning, curiousity overcomes him and he decides to stay another day in the town of cats. The next night, the cats notice his scent and the discovery drives them into a frenzy. They look for him everywhere, but morning comes just in time before finding his hiding place. On the third day, the train does not stop.

This is no town of cats, he finally realizes. It is the place where he was meant to be lost. It is a place not of this world that has been prepared especially for him. And never again, for all eternity, will the train stop at this station to bring him back to his original world.

Aomame and Tengo discover clues along the way as they struggle to escape the 1Q84 world. Very early on, a Tokyo cab driver says to Aomame: “Don’t let appearances fool you. There’s always only one reality.”

I could relate to Aomame’s and Tengo’s experiences. I feel a similar cognitive dissonance and confusion each time these BLS numbers are released.

October 5, 2012: On this day, a grateful nation thanks President Obama for his steadfast leadership that brought our nation’s unemployment rate down to 7.8%. We must continue to support the President who works so hard each day for the American people. We must never go back to the failed George W. Bush policies of $1.83 per gallon gasoline prices and 4.7% unemployment.

Orwell is dead, but Big Brother is alive and well. And we are trapped in a world very different from the one we knew. The existential question for us is will we find our way back to the real world in time? Or are we destined to remain trapped forever in the year 2Q12 in an abandoned country despoiled by rats.

“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”
—George Orwell, 1984

But don’t let appearances fool you. There’s always only one reality, and reality doesn’t change no matter what the numbers appear to show.

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