I recently read a short 50-page monograph entitled American Exceptionalism – An Experiment in History , from a terrific series published by the American Enterprise Institute. Written by Charles Murray, this monograph dissects the original “exceptional” elements that converged to bring forth the United States of America at a particular place on earth, and a particular time in human history.
Murray explains how four key elements originally sparked America’s remarkable flourishing. One of the four elements is the exceptional traits of the American colonists themselves, among which was industriousnous. He defines this as “the bone-deep American assumption that life is to be spent getting ahead through hard work and thereby making a better life for oneself and one’s children.” He traces this trait to Americans’ “fierce determination to be economically independent – what became known over the course of the 19th century as self reliance and later as rugged individualism.” (pp. 18-20)
Murray also examines the latter-day trend of the four elements through the 20th and 21st centuries. He finishes by asking and answering the question, “Is the United States still exceptional?” His closing commentary on the recent trend of American industriousness includes the following observation:
“Americans still work longer hours than Europeans, but the proportion of American working class males in the prime of life, ages 30-49, who worked forty hours per week or more dropped from 81% in 1960 to 64% in the beginning of 2008 (before the 2008 recession began). The percent of that same group who were not even in the labor force rose from 5% to 13% during that period. These numbers have no precedent in a country where, until the last few decades, it was taken for granted that all adult males in the prime of life who were not completely disabled would be working or looking for work.” (p. 42)
Is Unemployment Really Falling?
The last sentence I just quoted from Murray reminded me of some research I did recently on U.S. unemployment trends .
As of July 2013, there were 246 million non-institutionalized civilians over the age of 16 in the U.S. The civilian labor force participation rate has dropped to 63.4%, or 155.8 million. This is down from 66.4% in January 2007.
The “official” unemployment statistic reported by the federal government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is technically called U3. The BLS definition of U3 is “people without jobs that have actively looked for work within the past four weeks, as a percentage of the civilian labor force.” U3 is the unemployment number you hear reported on the nightly news. The U3 rate in July was 7.4% (11.5 million people), supposedly “down” from 7.6% in May. Hmmm….
Ever wonder what happens (statistically) to a U3 person when he/she stops trying to find work? There are several other unemployment figures tracked by BLS, each building on the previous one:
U4 =U3 + “discouraged workers”. These are people who have stopped looking for work because current economic conditions make them believe that no jobs are available. The U4 rate in July was 8.3% (12.9 million), meaning there are 1.4 million “discouraged workers.” It was up from 7.7% in May.
U5 = U4 + “marginally attached workers.” These are people who are able and would like to work, but have not looked for a job recently. The U5 rate in July was 9.1% (14.2 million), meaning there are 1.3 million “marginally attached workers.” It was up from 8.5% in May.
(Prior to some BLS procedure changes in 1994 under President Clinton, U5 used to be reported as the “official” U.S. unemployment rate, which was more truthful. Ever since 1994, U3 has been reported, which whitewashes the real situation.)
U6 = U5 + “underemployed workers.” These are part-time workers who want to work full time, but cannot due to economic reasons. The U6 rate in July was 14.3% (22.3 million), meaning there are 8.1 million “underemployed workers.” It was up from 13.4% in May.
Here’s a chart showing U3 through U6 unemployment, from 1994 to 2011. (Please click to enlarge it.)
In addition, it is estimated that there are about 13.5 million “long-term discouraged” workers, a category that hasn’t appeared in any of the BLS statistics since 1994. Quite probably, they will simply never look for work again. If these people were heaped on top of the others, the true total unemployment rate would be about 23% as shown in the following chart :
Notice that since the end of 2009, while the BLS U3 and U6 unemployment numbers are sloping downwards, the estimated true unemployment is equally sloping upwards. This indicates that in the big picture, Americans aren’t getting back to work – they’re going on disability and other government subsistence.
When you combine those three bolded groups of able-bodied non-seekers of work (1.4M + 1.3M + 13.5M), it totals 16.2 million people, or 10.4% of America’s current civilian work force.
Today, for every “discouraged” or “marginally attached” able-bodied worker who is not looking for work, there are 10 discouraged taxpayers that are utterly fed up with this entitlement mentality that is crumbling the foundation of American Exceptionalism.
In the context of Charles Murray’s commentary on past and current industriousness, I view the existence of 16.2 million able-bodied non-seekers of work as inexcusable government dependency. “Discouraged,” are they? Do these people expect a job to travel to their front porch and ring the doorbell? I have relocated to a different state 4 times in 32 years, following the available opportunities. Ya do whatcha gotta do. That’s self responsibility.
The sad truth is, the modern American entitlement system now makes it more appealing for “discouraged” and “marginal” workers to suckle on the government teat than to go seek a job where the jobs exist . The government safety net has become a hammock for these 16.2 million job-not-seeking Americans.
In 1850, newspaper editor Horace Greeley famously advised opportunity seekers to “Go west, young man.”
Today it would be “Go soft, young man.”
 American Exceptionalism – An Experiment in History, Charles A. Murray, July 2013, American Enterprise Institute Press, distributed by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group.
 “An Analysis of the July 2013 Jobs Report”:
 “Analysis Behind and Beyond Government Economic Reporting”:
 “The 10 Best Cities for Finding Employment Right Now”:
Bethesda, MD; Austin, TX; Jacksonville, FL; Grand Rapids, MI; Columbus, OH; Seattle, WA; Phoenix, AZ; New York, NY; Richmond, VA; Oklahoma City, OK
- 33-minute radio interview of author Charles Murray:
- “The Hidden Number Behind America’s Falling Unemployment Rate”: