Job numbers don't add up; nor does educational system


Garrison Keillor quipped famously in Prairie Home Companion that in Lake Woebegone, among other splendid attributes of the place, all of the schoolchildren were above average. If this witticism could just be taken in stride, with an ironic smile on the face and a slight shrug of the shoulders, as if to say: "What else would you expect me to say?" there would be no need for my elaboration here on the underlying premise of Congressman Rick Larsen's op-ed piece that appeared in the Jan. 18 Bellingham Herald about raising the federal minimum wage and the latest campaign against income inequality.

An ethos of egalitarianism permeates our body politic; Chairman Mao's great proletarian revolution of the '60s and '70s in China had nothing on our cultural mainstream imperative of leveling distinctions. Meanwhile, we admire, or say we admire, success, especially hard-earned success, the tenacious overcoming of obstacles, barriers, setbacks, failures, prejudices and sometimes sheer bad luck.

With such a split political-, economic- and cultural-national personality, it's hard to even try and talk sense about issues of political economy in contemporary America. Rather, it's usually much more often a question of reinforcing the prejudices, assumptions and comforting mantras of our political and cultural allies. And it would be presumptuous of me in the extreme to pretend that somehow my own views were above the clichés constantly employed in the partisan fray. But here is my two cents worth anyway:

The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), besides putting out monthly the payroll employment and unemployment rate figures, puts out something, on a slightly trailing monthly basis, called JOLTS - for Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary. The figure for job openings as of the end of October 2013 was 3.9 million job openings. This figure is supposedly over and above the normal monthly turnover in job hirings and terminations, which averages a little over 4 million per month. Since the labor force, as defined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is about 156 million, that 3.9 million figure works out to exactly 2.5 percent of the total labor force. Deduct 2.5 percent from the latest unemployment rate figure of 6.7 percent, and ignoring for right now calculating the effects of the interactions necessarily triggered by such an increase in employment, we would in theory see the unemployment rate down to only 4.2 percent. The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines job openings, by the way, as real positions currently available or opening within the next 30 days with employers actively seeking such workers outside of their present base of employees. Yet we're told we have 13 million to 14 million unemployed or discouraged workers at the present time. In the land of can-do problem solvers, how can this be? I mean, seriously, how can this be, Congressman Larsen?

As to raising people out of poverty, we seem to forget, conveniently, that our largest import into the country is poverty itself, that is, the tens of millions of foreign born, documented and undocumented, the great majority of whom come here with nothing or next to nothing except hope and a great willingness to work. In other words, poverty is a moving target here, part of the ceaseless churning of our dynamic society.

As to greater educational opportunities, I'm going to say something radically uncouth: I've heard over the years several college professors tell me that at least 30 percent of the kids on campus don't belong there; they have neither the intellectual ability nor the motivation to succeed in an academic environment. Yet, in line with the Lake Woebegone school children, everyone is encouraged to go to college. Instead, there should be a massive shift in existing resources to appropriate educational opportunities away from academics, toward, vocational and skilled job training. Not more resources, but a shifting of present resources. Heresy on my part to say these things, I suppose, but maybe some readers will agree with me or at least start to look at these questions from a different angle.


This is one of an occasional column by Mark B. Packer, a Bellingham attorney and former planning commissioner who has led a book discussion group called "Heavy Culture in Bellingham" for the past 23 years.

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