American employment, at first glance, has looked good lately. Official joblessness keeps dropping, more net new positions are added almost every month than the population increase can absorb, and in August’s data, average wages even got into that spirit by rising at a way-over-inflation 4% annual rate. The bad news of more and more people deciding they don’t want to work at all is whispered by comparison, as is the vulnerability we have by piling up the years, about six of them now, with no recession.
Given all that, it’s no wonder that other concerns, even among the output from the huge crowd of 2016 presidential contenders, are predominating. There are, however, some meaningful things about work which we can get from other stories, even those which don’t seem relevant.
The first is about football. The regular NFL season opened last night, with its about 1,600 well-employed production workers. Yet one seems unlikely to be on the field – Tim Tebow. This winner of the Heisman Trophy (best college player) was drafted in the first round, did well at quarterback, gathered a lot of attention for not only his work but his evangelical Christianity, but was considered flawed for various reasons, and ended up being traded and cut. He was a college football analyst on TV, then was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles. In the preseason, he again played respectably, but did not make the team.
So why am I writing about him in a column about employment? Many people seem to think that the reason Tebow has not been able to stay on rosters is that, despite achieving results coaches want, he falls short in how he does what goes into them. Even though his passes have generally been on target, they are often wobbly. Are these employers doing the right thing by judging him on technique instead of outcomes? If people consistently get their jobs done, should they be fired in favor of those who can’t match their proven achievements? I’m sure I don’t know the whole story here, but such an attitude is destructive, to workers and customers (in this case, fans) alike, whatever the industry.
Another story appeared in Sunday’s New York Times. It was titled “Friends at Work? Not So Much,” and essentially bemoaned the dropping likelihood of Americans socializing with their coworkers outside of their jobs, which is apparently much more likely in some other developed countries. A raft of reader responses came in on why, many of which came down to people spending less time with any social companions. But there is more than that. One root cause is the permanent jobs crisis, which has caused jobs to be more and more transitory, making them less desirable sources for investments of time and effort in friendships.
As for the presidential candidates, two things are forestalling most discussion on any substantive issues. The first is Hurricane Donald. Trump has been getting amazing amounts of press attention, even for irrelevant things such as his TV show. Both despite and because of his wildly aggressive statements, he is way on top of the Republican polls, yet most think he won’t last, and if any well-established newspaper columnist anywhere in the country supports him I don’t know about it. Other hopefuls in his party are reacting in various ways, ranging from trying to grab his coattails to just waiting for him to crash and burn, and, generally and understandably, are not saying much for now.
The other factor preventing more candidate substance is on the Democratic side. Hillary Clinton, once the massive favorite and still with much shorter sportsbook.ag election odds than anyone else (now at 35 to 20 against, compared with next-best Jeb Bush’s 6 to 1 against), is falling as fast as the worst recent stock market days. Even on the liberal side she is gathering almost exclusively negative press, mostly from her atrocious handling of her email message management scandal, and is being buried by once fringe candidate Bernie Sanders in how much she is liked and trusted. She is now behind in both Iowa and New Hampshire polls. Even Joe Biden, an undeclared contender with the same 15-to-1 odds as Sanders, has been taking a long time to decide whether to get in the race, which he is heavily likely to do only if Clinton falls much more. Until we see a bottom to her descent, others will not commit themselves.
One Republican, though, released something substantive. On Wednesday, Jeb Bush put forth a plan for federal tax reform. It included consolidating income tax brackets into three (10%, 25%, and 28%), increasing deductions for those at the low end, removing various loopholes, eliminating the estate tax, and other ideas. Although such policies would create jobs, through tens of millions of Americans having more money to spend, even Republicans acknowledged that the proposal would cost over $1 trillion in revenue shortfalls over ten years, and few outside his campaign staff really think it would, by itself, achieve the national economy’s touted 4% annual growth. Slashing revenues would call for hacking spending as well, and that would devastate prospects for the labor-intensive infrastructure project America badly needs.
There have been a few other odds and ends on the edges of American employment. Will the Kim Davis idiocy make it fashionable for people to refuse to do their jobs? (I would sure like to get weeks of nationwide publicity just for not doing mine.) Atlantic published a piece about “job flexibility” helping economic mobility, which would have been worthwhile if author Gillian B. White had defined even in general terms what she meant by that. Candidates and commentators everywhere are still conflating good things for American jobs, such as mandating high standards for workers to be considered contractors instead of employees, with bad ones such as forcing all employers everywhere to raise their lowest rates of pay. Despite the lull, the news about work is still out there – we just need to look a little harder.