For the last few months I've been looking for a job. It hasn't been fun. If running for public office, which I've done, is one of life's most humbling experiences, then looking for work has to be one of its most humiliating. As a losing candidate, you only get turned down on one particular day. As a job seeker, you get to be spurned continually, day after day, week after week, often by people younger and less intelligent than you. The only bright part is that by being unemployed, I am undoubtedly making many Wall Street investors deliriously happy. But more on that later.
When you are looking for a job, the hunt becomes overwhelming. Friends ask how you're doing, how's the family, and the first thing out of your mouth is, "I'm looking for a job." Bedtime gives way to accounting nightmares, as you uneasily crunch the numbers, trying to determine exactly when the black ink will start to bleed bright red. Sunday mornings morph from lazy, peaceful interludes into frantic, anxiety-ridden searches, during which you spurn the comics for the employment pages, armed with a highlighting pen and an overabundance of defense mechanisms and morbid self-evaluations.
One day, while checking out "Section 156 -- Help Wanted Professional," I saw an ad from an employment service that promised to help mid-life career changers like me find their place in Corporate America. I asked my wife if I should contact them. She pointed out that I never had, do not now have, and am never likely to have a place in Corporate America. Nevertheless, my partner in impending poverty went to the library and checked out a host of job-seeking, résumé-writing, interview-techniquing tomes for my perusal. They were filled with great advice ... on how to find my place in Corporate America!
Still, it's good to know that Corporate America is doing better as my predicament continues. It has always annoyed me that higher unemployment invariably makes Wall Street giddy. It never seems to matter to the richest 5 percent of the country -- the ones who have received the bulk of the economic gains since 1973 and control most of the wealth -- or their chief protector, Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, that 80 percent of the workforce is already making less, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than they made 25 years ago. As soon as the unemployment rate goes down, indicating a potential rise in wages, up go the interest rates (4.75 percent to 6.5 percent since last June). Then, as the economy slows down enough to toss a couple of meaningless wage-earners out on the streets, the champagne is uncorked at the stock exchanges, the important economic indicators "stabilize," and the rich go on getting richer.
Maybe it's time for America to begin using a different set of indicators -- ones that truly show how healthy (or otherwise) our collective economy actually is. For instance: What percentage of our children are growing up in poverty? (25 percent.) How many Americans have no health insurance? (Close to 50 million.) How many years have we been running foreign trade deficits? (Twenty-five.) What is the state of our schools, mass transit, public buildings and low-income housing stock? (Terrible.) What is the disparity in income between the very rich and the rest of us? (At a 70-year high and greater than any other Western nation.) And most important, how long will I be out of work? (?)
In fact, such alternative economic gauges are already being used by iconoclastic social scientists -- one is called the Genuine Progress Indicator -- that include the "costs" of parenting, caring for old and sick family members, growing food for family and community needs, maintaining households, volunteering in community service, do-it-yourself home construction and repair; and the relative "values" of air and noise quality, population and traffic density, housing and property costs, employment and job opportunities, environmental well-being, and educational, recreational, cultural and social-service programs.
Because when you come down to it, the only meaningful economic indicator to an unemployed person is not the cold numbers coolly considered by the bankers and stockbrokers of America, but the relieved feelings he embraces when someone tells him that a regular paycheck is again on the way. If the economy of our country can only be strengthened by watching more people hit the skids, then it's time we challenged the assumptions of the Wall Street establishment and paid a little more attention to the real lives of American workers. There's got to be more to "wealth" than arithmetic.
Oh, and by the way, did I mention that I'm looking for a job?
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