Kill the Messenger?

International Scorekeeper on Chopping Block

The Obama administration has apparently come up with a creative way to deal with the increasingly bleak news with regard to the economic position of the United States in the world.  It is proposing to eliminate the office in the Bureau of Labor Statistics that collects and publishes the comparative data on employment and unemployment and manufacturing productivity and labor costs, among other things.  You can find it right there on page 11 among the various programs that it has marked for termination. 

Through this voluntary act of blinding the Obama gang will manage to save all of two million dollars a year, which in Pentagon parlance hardly qualifies as “budget dust.”  What will be lost will be a ready reckoning of how the country is measuring up on the world economic front, which might well be the main intended purpose of the program’s elimination.

Let us have a look at the office’s web page to get an idea of the sort of information that will not be so graphically and readily available in the future should the administration get its way.  In a 10-country comparison of monthly unemployment rates adjusted to U.S. concepts—something that no international agency does—one finds that the unemployment rate in the United States is the highest and it has had the fastest rate of increase over the past year.  No telling where that chart is going, quite literally if the blinders are successful.  

If you want to see one reason why the NAFTA might not have been such a good idea you can consult one of the many tables the office has compiled on manufacturing compensation.  Here, for instance, you can see that in the United States in 2007 production workers in manufacturing made an average of $25.27 an hour, counting fringe benefits, while in Mexico they made $2.92 an hour. 

With time and a considerable amount of effort you might be able to find similar comparative data elsewhere, but for these compensation numbers, the best alternative site, the Key Indicators of the Labor Market of the International Labor Office, the source of the data is this same BLS office that is targeted for elimination.

Because of its technical nature, the targeted office’s comparative productivity report is a less ready source of unsettling data, but the numbers are there, nonetheless.*  One can find, for instance, in Table B of the report that the whopping U.S. decline in manufacturing employment of 3.9 percent in 2008 was the greatest among the 17 countries compared, and one can see further that from 2000 to 2008 the United States lost manufacturing jobs at a startling rate of 3 percent a year, a huge acceleration over earlier years.  Only in the United Kingdom did manufacturing employment fall faster since 2000.  One may search the Internet high and low and he will find no better indicator of this country’s relative deindustrialization.

Jobs Gone to China

Because their data collection and publication system does not generally measure up to advanced Western standards, good measures of China’s meteoric rise in the industrial world are notoriously hard to find.  The office targeted for elimination has been a national and world leader in shining a light on Chinese economic reality.  In a 2005 ground-breaking study commissioned by this BLS International Labor Comparisons office by noted demographer Judith Banister entitled “Manufacturing Employment and Compensation in China,” one will find the following passage:

In recent decades, China has become a manufacturing powerhouse.  The country’s official data showed 83 million manufacturing employees in 2002, but that figure is likely to be understated; the actual number was probably closer to 109 million.  By contrast, in 2002 the Group of Seven (G7) major industrialized countries had a total of 53 million manufacturing workers.

Here you see in raw numbers verification of your impression that almost everything you buy these days has a “Made in China” label on it.  The G7, by the way, are the United States, Canada, Japan, France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom, which we still tend to think of as the world’s industrial leaders.

 The BLS’s International Labor Comparisons Office has been documenting global economic change that some people would apparently prefer that we not know about, whether we believe in it or not.  The three-word campaign slogan of “Yes, we can,” it would seem, has been replaced with an older three-word saying, “Ignorance is bliss.”

David Martin

February 6, 2010

*Unfortunately, the numbers to which we refer are not there anymore.  Since the original article was written the report has been streamlined, eliminating quite a bit of information.  Maybe they got the message.

David Martin

May 28, 2011




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