Sunday, December 21, 2003

HOLA, BRACERO! ERES UN "FREE AGENT"! An interesting report from Northeastern University, summarized here, looks at two Department of Labor surveys, and the very different pictures they give of our employment situation.

While the Current Population Survey (CPS) "estimates the number of employed persons has risen by nearly 2.4 million," between November 2001 and November 2003, says the summary, "the CES survey indicates that the number of wage and salary jobs in November 2003 is still some 726,000 below its November 2001 level. This chasm -- to the tune of some 3.11 million jobs -- is historically unique..."

What makes the difference more stark is that the two measurers recorded a roughly similar number of jobs in 2001.

The authors seem to lean toward the more encouraging CPS number, but their analysis of the difference in outlooks is less than encouraging: the CPS, they say,
provides a much broader measure of employment, including farm workers, the self-employed, household workers, contract workers, unpaid family workers, private household workers as well as those working for pay off the books, including legal and illegal immigrants not taken into account by the CES survey.

Also, they say, "the bulk of the difference appears to be attributable to the increased use by firms of independent contractors who will be counted by the CPS but not by the CES, and to the growth of employment in the informal economy, including the hiring of many undocumented immigrants over the past three years."

So, if you take into account "informal economy" laborers such as home-based piece-workers, seasonal fruit-pickers, temp workers who (personal experience leads me to believe) probably can't get a steady gig, those who are paid under the table (and if you've ever had a job like that, you know how dicey those can be), and those who labor without pay, things look pretty good. If not, things suck.

This is a little reductive, of course, and the authors have some good points about what constitutes a true picture of the economy. But I do believe they're more sanguine about the "informal economy" than those of us who are not gainfully employed economists might be. Advocates laud the coming of "Free Agent Nation" as a golden age of autonomy for the American worker. Of course, the American worker was largely autonomous before the dawn of the Labor Movement, and was routinely and royally screwed because of it.

In some ways, it seems, these economists and econometricians are like TV sitcom producers: they act as if everyone is a successful young professional, with tons of options and an impossible large New York apartment.

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