Posted by Jay Livingston
I often use unemployment when I’m trying to explain the difference between social facts and individual facts. To explain why an individual doesn’t have a job, use individual facts – lack of education, bad work habits, etc. But when the unemployment rate rises by a few tenths of a percent, when hundreds of thousands of people who were working a few months ago are now jobless, we think not about individual characteristics but about “the economy.”
Mills uses this example in The Sociological Imagination, and it’s an easy one for intro sociology students to grasp. But maybe Mills and I are wrong.
Mulligan must be right. After all, the New York Times is publishing this (on Dec. 24, a Christmas gift to workers), and Mulligan is a professor of economics at Chicago. He must know.
Back in October, the Times published another Mulligan piece saying that “the economy doesn’t really need saving. It’s stronger than we think. . . . If you are not employed by the financial industry (94 percent of you are not), don’t worry. The current unemployment rate of 6.1 percent is not alarming.”
The unemployment rate for November was up to 6.7%, also not alarming, I suppose – just another half million people responding to those incentives not to work.
I always thought that the unemployment rate measured only people who were looking for work. Those who had given up and dropped out of the labor force were not officially “unemployed.” So I’m not sure what Mulligan means by “incentives that encourage them not to work.” Whatever. In any case, in the past year, the number of the officially unemployed in the US has risen by nearly 3 million, bringing the total to 10 million.
That's a lot of people with no incentive to work. But I’m sticking with Mulligan. Not to worry. No cause for alarm. It’s not the economy, stupid.