Posts Tagged ‘students’


There are lies, there are outrageous lies, and there are statistics.

— Robert Giffen, Economic Journal (1892)

Are U.S. unemployment numbers rigged? Sure, they are!

They’re not rigged in the way Paul Krugman implied last Friday (“This being the Trump era, you can’t completely discount the possibility that they’ve gotten to the BLS”). Or in the way former General Electric CEO Jack Welch suggested back in 2012 (when he asserted that the Obama White House had manipulated the job figures for political gains). Or in the way Donald Trump used to say the unemployment rate was “phony” (“The number is probably 28, 29, as high as 35 [percent]. In fact, I even heard recently 42 percent.”) until, of course, he became president and declared the rising jobs numbers a “blowout” (even though he and his economic advisers used some questionable math) and, most recently, the falling unemployment rate a “great day” (for George Floyd, whom Trump said was “looking down right now and saying this is a great thing that’s happening for our country,” and “for everybody”).

No, the jobs numbers are not manipulated in those ways. They’re rigged—in my view, much more seriously—in terms of the ways the various categories are defined and measured and the manner in which the data are collected. And, of course, the ways values are imputed to the rising and falling numbers.

Let’s start with the last point: why should we believe, as most news outlets and Trump himself proclaimed (including FiveThirtyEight, which declared it “shockingly good”), that the much-publicized recent fall in the official unemployment rate (from 14.7 percent in April to 13.3 percent in May) is a good thing? We’re still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, when workers should be paid to stay home. Instead, they’re being forced to have the freedom to return to selling their ability to work—because their employers want to make profits by hiring them and workers themselves are finding it difficult to get by on unemployment benefits (when, that is, they’ve been able to obtain them). Why is that something we should applaud?

Moreover, even according to the unadjusted numbers, there were still 21 million unemployed American workers in May. Let’s remember that, at the worst point of the Second Great Depression (in October 2009), the highest unemployment rate was 10 percent and the largest number of unemployed workers was 15.4 million.

As for the rest, the first sign there may be a problem with the unemployment numbers is the admission, in the text of the official report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that many workers may have been misclassified. Workers who were “employed but absent from work” were supposed to be counted as “unemployed on temporary layoff” but many, it seems, were not.

If the workers who were recorded as employed but absent from work due to “other reasons” (over and above the number absent for other reasons in a typical May) had been classified as unemployed on temporary layoff, the overall unemployment rate would have been about 3 percentage points higher than reported (on a not seasonally adjusted basis).

Fixing that error would raise the official unemployment rate in May to 16.3 percent.

Now, let’s consider what the official statistics mean and don’t mean. This is an exercise I used to do with all of my students, most of whom had no idea how the unemployment numbers were defined and calculated, even after taking many mainstream economics courses.

The official or headline unemployment rate is actually one of 6 rates reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, referred to as U-3. To be counted as unemployed according to the U-3 rate, a worker has to (a) have had a job, (b) been laid off from a job, and (c) be actively looking for a new job. (In addition, they’re not counted if they’re in the armed forces, in prison, or undocumented.)

The rates and total numbers of officially unemployed workers, from January 2007 to May 2020, are illustrated in the two charts below.

LNS14000000_390681_1591454536897 LNS13000000_390681_1591454536844

So, who is not included in these numbers? The headline unemployment rate doesn’t include workers (such as high school and college graduates) who are looking for their first jobs. It doesn’t include workers who are involuntarily working at part-time jobs (working any number of hours, including 1 hour a week, counts as “employed”). And it doesn’t include workers who want a job but are “discouraged” and therefore have given up actively looking for a job.

The so-called U-6 rate includes two of those groups, in addition to the unemployed workers that form the U-3 rate: workers who are employed part-time for “economic reasons” and workers who are considered “marginally attached” to the labor force.


As readers can see, the U-6 rate (the green line in the chart above) is always much higher than the U-3 rate (the blue line). In May, it was 21.2 percent, compared to the rate of 13.3 percent that was widely reported in news outlets.

And then there’s the group of 4.8 million workers who were considered misclassified in the most report. Add them all together and the United States actually had a total of 45.4 million workers who were either unemployed or underemployed in May. That’s exactly one-third the size of the entire employed population in the United States.

But that U-6 plus misclassified total still doesn’t adequately capture the dire straits of American workers. In addition to first-time job-seekers who have unable to find a job (some unknown portion of an estimated 3.8 million high-school graduates, 1 million who graduated with associate’s degrees, and 2 million with bachelor’s degrees), it doesn’t include any of the estimated 8 million undocumented workers who have lost their jobs.

The only conclusion is that the official unemployment figures are in fact rigged—not by any particular malfeasance or corrupt intervention into the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but by the way the unemployed are defined, measured, and counted. The reserve army of unemployed and underemployed workers is actually much larger than the figures cited by the White House and widely reported in news outlets.

In the end, what matters for American workers is less that the statistics are biased. It’s more that the prevailing economic institutions in the United States—which use and abuse them as wage-slaves, no more so than during the current pandemic—are rigged against them.

Lisa Benson cartoon

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Will colleges and universities reopen in the fall? That’s the question on the minds of many these days—administrators, faculty, staff, students, and their families, not to mention the communities in which they live.

All institutions of higher education (in the United States and in much of the rest of the world) had a difficult spring, having to close their campuses for in-person instruction (as well as many other activities, from athletics to study-abroad programs) in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic and resort to online classes. There wasn’t much advance notice or planning and, notwithstanding the heroic efforts of faculty and staff and the unequal means of students who found themselves back at home, the results were at best uneven and less than satisfactory.

Now, the question is, what will they do in the fall, while the pandemic continues to accumulate millions of cases and hundreds of thousands of deaths around the world?

California State University—the largest system of four-year higher education in the country, with 23 campuses, 53 thousand faculty and staff, and 482 thousand students—recently decided it will close all its campuses for in-person instruction this fall. Most other colleges and universities of which I am aware either have publicly announced their decisions to reopen in the fall or are expected to do so.

Purdue University and the University of Notre Dame (my former employer) are the latest to do so. Over the weekend, the presidents of both schools published opinion pieces (in the Washington Post and the New York Times, respectively) explaining and attempting to justify their decisions.

Purdue’s Mitch Daniels put it in terms of balancing the overwhelming student demand to return to campus—”the young people who are our reason for existing at all,” who supposedly are not at risk—and protecting the “unusually small minority” (of students, faculty, and staff) “who could be at genuinely serious risk.” Not to reopen, he asserted, “would be not only anti-scientific but also an unacceptable breach of duty.”

John I. Jenkins, speaking for Notre Dame, adopted a somewhat different stance, arguing that the decision to reopen the campus was based on both scientific and moral grounds. Following the science, he explained, would mean keeping “everyone away until an effective vaccine was universally available.” But, he added, relying on a selective reading of Aristotle, it is necessary for society “to bear burdens and take risks for the education and well-being of its young.”*

As readers can well imagine, both decisions were greeted with a great deal of skepticism and considerable criticism (as well as, to be clear, some tepid support). Here are some of the comments from both newspapers:

I can almost hear the dollar signs in his eyes

Immediate removal of this failed Presidential bid, incompetent Governor, who has no business to be the President of a university, should be demanded. This man is as bad or even worse than Trump. There is no place for a man like him in academia.

As a retired university professor, I am concerned about your ability to protect your faculty and staff. Undergrads as a group will have really good intentions, but that age group is not known for its ability to continuously focus on the well being of others. And there appears to be a such a large percentage of asymptomatic carriers that even with extensive testing it will be difficult to keep faculty/staff exposure to a minimum. I wish you all good luck.

I don’t hear any real consideration here of the faculty and staff who are at much greater risk as a cohort than students. What considerations were given to the “least among us?” –to evoke a resonant Christian theme — the elder faculty and staff, the hourly wage workers, those who have pre-existing conditions or care for those with these conditions, who work at the university. I think morality in this case is a bit more complicated than Rev Jenkins wants to have it here. Luck of the Irish to you!

The only way morality has anything to do with the health of college students on campus from an administrative perspective is whether you value money over lives. Schools are not going to be prepared to open in the Fall unless a vaccine or a universally effective cure is miraculously developed before then.

And that’s true across the country. I’ve been in touch with lots of university and college professors and staff members, including former colleagues, and there is a great deal of concern—from hesitation to resentment—about reopening campuses in the fall. Part of the reaction is certainly about health and safety, for members of the university of community as well as the people who live and work in the environs of those campuses (since both students and employees spend a lot of time off campus). It is likely that many of those campuses will become new hotspots, like meatpacking plants and nursing homes, for COVID-19. A second reaction concerns the amount of extra work that will be imposed on campus workers—from faculty through administrative assistants to cleaning staff—at the same time as they have faced furloughs, lowered pay, and cuts to their retirement benefits.

The problem they face is they’re not just there to assist young people to get a college education; they’re working in what I have called (since 2010) the new corporate university.

That university, and not the one portrayed in the public relations copy proffered by Daniels, Jenkins, and other academic executives, is a site for the production of commodities. Many different commodities, in both private and public institutions. Yes, they produce and sell the education commodity to students. But they also offer for sale plenty of other commodities: room and board, NCAA athletic performances, venues for special events, trinkets and apparel with protected logos, patents and royalties. They are also the site of funded research (from both public and private sources) and financial investments, as well as the source of paid consultants (especially in economics).

And, of course, the tail of other activities often wags the dog of undergraduate education, the ostensible reason for reopening offered by Daniels and Jenkins. Unless they reopen the campus for in-person classes, then there won’t be athletic competitions, especially football and basketball. And no revenues from housing and feeding the students or sending them abroad. Plus, if they don’t reopen for teaching, venues won’t be made available for renting for special events. And so on and so forth.

That’s not to say real, valuable intellectual and pedagogical work isn’t being conducted on college and university campuses. It is, at least to some extent, as I learned from almost four decades of teaching on and speaking at college and university campuses. But it does put the decision to reopen campuses in a new light. What’s at stake is the production of those commodities, and the revenues associated with them, and the way those commodities are produced.

As I recently wrote to some former colleagues, who were discussing the university’s announcement of the decision to reopen, which was communicated to faculty, staff, and students at the same time,

Dear friends, former colleagues among the faculty and staff, I don’t envy you. More is being demanded of you, under precarious conditions, and yet you’re only finding out what you’ll be up against with general edicts from on high. Many of you have voiced concerns, and then one or another on the inside steps up to assure you that the issue has indeed been discussed. 

Permit me, if you will, to state the obvious: There are real health and safety issues with the reopening plan. There are also real employment and other economic issues. But what I’m hearing (reading) is, in the end, there’s a real governance issue. “They” discuss the issues, with all good intentions, and “you” have to figure out a way of working with what “they” have decided.

That’s no way for a university to operate, even during a period of exception—when, of course, such issues become even more acute, and the consequences even more serious. 

I wish you all the best of luck,

The fact is, on most campuses with which I am familiar, the decision to reopen the university was made by administrators and then communicated to others, who are then forced to take on the tasks (often in addition to their normal activities) necessary to carry out those decisions. Yes, along the way, there may have been some consultation but the decision-making power rests in just a few hands.

That’s the way the new corporate university functions. “We” (the university faculty) work for “them.” It wasn’t that way when I first started as a professor, when faculty governance was the norm. I worked in an institution with at least some degree of governance by those who did the work (although, to be honest, the staff were mostly left out, which led to union-organizing efforts).

Now, that’s no longer the case at most colleges and universities. So, the decision to return to producing the various commodities offered by institutions of higher education is taken by the administrators and trustees, and then carried out by others, who played no role in actually making the decisions. And, as I wrote to my former colleagues, those decisions during this “period of exception” have even more serious consequences for all concerned, on and off campus.

That’s exactly why the decision of whether or not to reopen college and university campuses in the fall can’t be left solely to those currently in charge. It needs to be a collective decision. Not to move in that direction is an “unacceptable breach of duty” and a “timidity” that undermines the idea of the university.


*As one of my former colleagues (a philosophy professor) explained, Jenkins claimed the higher moral ground for his position, but, by Aristotle’s reasoning, the case may be the exact reverse. Here are a couple of quotes Jenkins didn’t include: “the man who exceeds in confidence about what is really terrible is rash” (NE 1115b27-28), and “but even death, we should hold, does not in all circumstances give an opportunity for courage: for instance we do not call a man courageous for facing death by drowning or disease” (NE 1115a). So, instead of accusing the “other” position of being morally deficient, and engaging in rhetorical grandstanding, the only option available is to work out, much more humbly, what would be possible in the current circumstances, and to proceed gradually and with great caution, as more information and resources become available.


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Jean-François Millet, “The Gleaners” (ca. 1855–56)

We already had high food insecurity in this country and now we are putting another layer of need on top of it.

Kevin M. Fitzpatrick

One of the many irrational characteristics of capitalism is that billions of tons of food go to waste while hundreds of millions of people struggle with hunger on a daily basis. And like all the other senseless attributes of the way the economy is currently organized, the mismatch between the enormous quantity of food that is available for human consumption but is not consumed and the vast number of people who are food insecure has been highlighted and heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic—especially in the United States.

Even before the pandemic, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reported that approximately 30 percent of food produced for human consumption around the world is either lost (from post-harvest to distribution) or wasted (at retail and consumption levels) each year—while an estimated 821 million people (just below 11 percent of the world’s population) were undernourished (pdf).* And in the United States? According to the National Resources Defense Council (pdf), the degree of food waste was even higher—between 39 and 43 percent of the total U.S. food supply. At the same time, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (pdf), more than 37 million Americans (13.9 percent of households) suffered food insecurity—and less than one-third of the food that was thrown out would be enough to feed this population completely.

This senseless combination of widespread food waste and food insecurity in the United States has only worsened in recent months. On one hand, with job losses skyrocketing because of the response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, hunger is a growing issue for millions of Americans. On the other hand, farmers aren’t able to harvest and sell the food they’re growing.


We’ve all seen the photos and read the stories: American workers and their families are lining up outside understocked food banks while animals are being culled, mountains of produce are rotting in the fields, and crops are being plowed under.

Clearly, the capitalist food system has failed. It certainly didn’t function well before the pandemic. And now its irrationality is even more evident, as it discards tons of food while more and more workers and their families go hungry.

But there are alternatives, outside of capitalism.


Frank Döring, cafeteria of an elementary school in Vanceburg, KY

For example, many schools are continue to prepare and making available, for pick up or delivery, free meals to needy students. But the “grab-and-go process,” without much more government assistance, becomes difficult the more remote the schools and the populations they serve are. Moreover, the free meal stations and deliveries put those who travel to work, prepare the food, and deliver it at additional risk for exposure to the coronavirus.

Food pantries and food banks are also providing free food (Feeding America estimates that demand has increased an average of 70 percent, and 40 percent of those being served are new to the system) but, across the country, they’re underfunded, understaffed, and understocked. Meanwhile, farmers are donating many tons of food but they’re finding it costly to harvest and distribute the food they can’t sell.

The Agriculture Department could step in to purchase the surplus food from farmers and deliver it to needy families. However, within the Trump administration, Secretary Sonny Perdue has been very slow to respond. As a result,

The scale of produce waste is staggering. Farmers in Florida, which provides much of the fresh produce to the eastern half of the U.S. during the winter and spring, left about 75 percent of the lettuce crop unharvested, along with significant portions of the state’s sweet corn, cabbage and squash. Up to 250 million pounds of tomatoes could end up left in the fields, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services. Florida officials estimate produce growers there have taken a half a billion dollar hit. In California, the industry is projected to lose more than $1 billion per month.

A fourth possibility is for an army of volunteers to pick and pack food that is ripening in the fields. And that’s what they’re beginning to do in Florida—they’re gleaning. For example, farmer Hank Scott

invited volunteer pickers with the Society of St. Andrew, a Christian hunger relief organization, to glean as much produce as they could and donate it to nearby food banks. Anything green they left behind will likely be plowed back into the ground, feeding no one and adding to the farm’s ballooning losses. . .

As the gleaners rescue vegetable after vegetable, they are both a final lifeline for desperate families and a sign of just how badly the novel coronavirus has kneecapped the systems that are supposed to keep everyone fed.


Because of that story, I was reminded of French Avant-garde filmmaker Agnes Varda, who focused her lens on the activity of gleaning in her remarkable 2000 film, The Gleaners and I. Beginning with Jean-François Millet’s famous depiction of “The Gleaners,” Varda documents the history (dating back to a 1554 French law that allows “the poor, the wretched, the deprived” to enter the fields once the harvest is over, and take what they wish) and current forms of gleaning (collecting the odd-shaped potato, the overripe fig, or the damaged apple and “dumpster-diving” for the supermarket product whose “sell by” date has passed). She also ruminates on her own activity as a filmmaker who, during the course of making the film, gleans from and with her diverse subjects, including rural drifters, homeless alcoholics, gypsy families living in trailers, a chef who gleans because he “likes to know where his food comes from,” and young punks who live on the street. These are all people who insist on finding a use for what capitalism has determined it has no use for.


As it turns out, the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law School has created the National Gleaning Project, a clearinghouse for gleaning and food recovery-related information. They have compiled information on gleaning and food-recovery organizations in 46 states plus the District of Columbia, along with a directory of relevant federal and state laws, and conducted a series of research reports. While the two terms are often conflated, and there are many different activities included under the rubric of gleaning and food recovery, the Project emphasizes

the main intent of the practice [which] is to recover surplus food for distribution to food insecure populations, meaning there is a charitable dimension to the act.

It’s that charitable dimension—the gift, if you will—that takes gleaning and other related activities (including field gleaning, wholesale produce salvage, perishable and prepared food rescue, and non-perishable food donations, collection, and recovery) beyond capitalism.** They are all ways of reducing waste and providing food to those who need it outside a system based on private property, wage-labor, and markets. In other words, gleaning and food recovery serve both to challenge the irrationality of the capitalist food system and to create a real alternative.***

And right now, in the midst of the senselessness of widespread hunger and massive amounts of food going to waste, we need more than ever to question and escape the logic of capitalism and make sure Americans get the food they need.


*Considering all people in the world affected by moderate levels of food insecurity together with those who suffer from hunger, it is estimated that over 2 billion people do not have regular access to safe, nutritious, and sufficient food, including 8 percent of the population in Northern America and Europe.

**In France, since 2015, supermarkets are required by law to be charitable—to donate all unsold but edible food to charities for immediate distribution to the poor.

***There is one glaring exception: gleaning will not solve the Jungle-like problems in American meat plants. As I see it, the only alternative is to give workers a say in how meat is processed and how their labor is organized.

If Medicare-for-All Were a War, No One Would Ask: How Do We Pay

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It’s time to get back to blog writing—after a 6-month hiatus during which I taught my final two courses at the University of Notre Dame (A Tale of Two Depressions and Marxian Economic Theory) and prepared for my retirement (which involved, among other things, sorting through, packing up, and moving decades of “stuff”). Now, after 38 years of teaching, I am officially Professor of Economics Emeritus. But, rest assured, I plan to continue this blog and other writing projects. 

For the first time in almost four decades (aside from a few research sabbaticals), I don’t face the prospect of returning to campus and teaching economics. But, I can’t help it, I still worry about what millions of students in the United States and around the world will learn—or at least be subjected to—when they enroll in their economics classes this fall.

One of the major issues for any economics class, especially an introductory or principles course, is how to make it useful for students. My own approach has always been to teach the basics of mainstream economics—the key assumptions, the standard models, the relevant conclusions—and then to teach the critique of mainstream economics (including alternative theories within the discipline of economics). Two for one, I used to tell the students. In my view, they would be better students and citizens of the world when they understood both how mainstream economics affected their lives and how they could criticize and explore alternatives to the hegemonic theories within economics.* And I updated the content, and made it more useful to students, as mainstream economic theories changed and as particular issues were taken up in the media and political discourse.

That’s certainly not how mainstream economists approach teaching. For example, Justin Wolfers, a liberal mainstream economist at the University of Michigan, recently announced that he wants to make introductory economics useful to students by teaching them “a set of tools that can empower them, providing insight that will guide them toward better decisions.” And those “better decisions”? Exactly the presumptions and pronouncements that mainstream economists have celebrated since their approach was invented by Adam Smith and then reinvented in the late nineteenth century as neoclassical economics. It’s the entire arsenal of comparative advantage, rational choice, opportunity cost, given scarcity, and so on.

The approach introduced by Wolfers with such fanfare is no different from the miserable and misleading analogy invoked by Harvard’s Greg Mankiw between international trade and hiring someone to shovel snow. And it accomplishes nothing more than demonstrating that current economic arrangements are exactly as they should be because, in the view of mainstream economists, free trade is always mutually beneficial:

Start thinking this way and you’ll quickly see that the ideas that guide your everyday decisions also propel international trade, which is why American engineers design iPhones, while foreign workers — who have fewer alternative opportunities — do the laborious work of putting them together. By assigning tasks this way, Americans have gotten cheaper iPhones, and Chinese and Indian consumers have gotten greater access to advanced technology.

Fortunately, there are many other economists who are devising courses that are much more useful to today’s students. Last year, Aditya Chakrabortty wrote about one such course, in which students learned that the rules of the economy “aren’t laws of nature.” And just last week, Andrew Simms and David Boyle published a new beginners’ guide to economics for non-experts:

In it we ask some heretical questions that that could get us expelled from most university economics departments, such as: is the price mechanism so clever, or rising productivity always a good thing? We talk about the trouble with growth, and why working less might be better. Our common starting point is that the economy should serve rather than dominate people, and that it must work within planetary ecological boundaries.

As against what Wolfers, Mankiw, and so many other mainstream economists teach their students, these approaches are useful to students because they serve to denaturalize both existing economic thought and economic arrangements, thereby creating space for alternative ways of thinking about how the economy is organized and creating other possibilities.

I’ll only be able to rest easy in my retirement when the teaching of economics is taken out of the hands of mainstream economists and the millions of students who enroll in economics classes are taught to think critically and creatively about the economic dimensions of their lives and the world around them.


*So, I was heartened and gratified when, on the occasion of my retirement, some of my former students shared their thoughts about what they’d learned along the way:

Ruccio Gift1


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