DEMOCRITIC: What Recovery?

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If you ever want a crash course in the art of communications, which, in the contemporary context, has nothing to do with the act of it, watch any news channel for a couple or 10 hours a day. You'll observe how a vast, technologically dazzling industry devoted solely to delivering information to the public can squander all its resources broadcasting hours of men saying absolutely nothing. Ari Fleischer, for example, America's First Flack, the embodiment of professional communications training and the strutting incarnation of snotty erudition, has a daily show on four channels in which he can say anything, no matter how preposterous or meaningless, and get taken at his word by every newsperson in the country.

Fleischer communicates by boiling complex situations down into simplistic slogans that he and his bosses expect to gather currency by sheer repetition. Take his March 11 assertion that the economy is growing, the economy is recovering. Perhaps not as blood-scented as most of the obfuscation issued from the White House of late, this is obviously spurious and easily debunked by any cursory reading of Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. Or, you might just take a look at the latest campaign from

An old saw claims that bars and employment agencies are the only businesses that thrive in bad economic times, and Monster, the online job search engine, has offered up a bellwether of the country's current fiscal straits. The basic setup of its ads is that specific jobs and the people who need them are like ships passing in the night. Since the campaign broke on the Super Bowl broadcast, the spot that's received the most attention shows a rugged, be-flanneled guy sitting in a diner, idle. Outside the window behind him, a driverless 18-wheeler careens down the highway, cutting a comically violent swath of destruction. In another spot, two plates of food sit on a pickup counter, just waiting for an engaging denizen of the service economy to deliver them to a restaurant's customers.

The latter, an obviously more somber spot, bespeaks the timely divergence Monster has made with this campaign, per its tagline, Blue collar. White collar. No collar. Now Monster works for everybody. Where its ads once addressed white-collar workaday disgruntlement, juxtaposing it with dream jobs you know, the whole pursuit of happiness thing this blue-collar turn reflects a kind of quiet desperation in the market, without being condescending to the audience or the vocations, which have a genuine need for one another in today's climate. It's as if in these moments, at least one advertiser has dispensed with the Pollyanna chorus its industry specializes in that Utopia awaits us one purchase, or phone call away to give us an earnest reminder that there are things to do.

It would seem that Monster's approach couldn't have a more receptive audience, since Fleischer is wrong, ignorant and/or lying about the economy. Currently, there are 2.5 job seekers for every job available, according to an AFL-CIO report released in January, in an employment marketplace that has lost 1.7 million jobs over the last two years, the first consecutive years of employment drops since the late '50s. The market got a kick in the gut at the end of 2002, when, flying in the face of its tried-and-true rush retail season, the service economy hired 162,000 temp, or contingent, employees two months into the new year, far short of the 266,000 projected, and not good enough to move the unemployment rate from 6 percent. Some 308,000 layoffs in February 2003 marked the biggest drop since the months after Sept. 11. For the 12 months ending September 30, 2002, bankruptcies jumped by 8 percent over the previous year, with the total number of cases filed in the three-month period ending last September the highest in history.

Any notion of recovery in that climate whatever Wall Street blip the stiffs in suits want to hearken to is far removed from the cash register, for people behind the counter or in front of it. There's no end in sight, says Tim Costello, coordinator for the North American Alliance for Fair Employment (NAAFE). Even with lower-wage workers, to the extent they're working, wages that were rising very small amounts before Sept. 11, that's all wiped out. Couple that with economic policies designed to enrich the rich, and it's tough to see anything but doom and gloom.

Even for the bigger benchmark numbers, the fallout beyond is palpable, says Costello. More than 22 percent of Americans have taken a contingent job they didn't want, and an additional 13 percent live in a household where someone has done so, according to an NAAFE poll conducted by Lake Snell Perry and Associates of Washington, D.C. Some 2.1 million Americans did contingency work on any given day in 2002, a 5.7 percent drop from 2001 and on top of a 14.2 percent drop that year, per the Department of Labor. More than 4 million work part-time because they can't find full-time positions, according to the AFL-CIO.

Mind you, this is in the realm of jobs that companies have used as a hedge against the overhead of full-time positions, a realm where there are no benefits. Of male contingent workers, 15 percent get health insurance through their jobs, and 11 percent of women do. Of part-time temps, those who work less than 34 hours a week this includes nearly all employees of Wal-Mart, which accounts for 1 in every 20 new jobs that open up less than 1 percent of men and women get health care through work.

Even those employers that offer benefits, like Wal-Mart, are pricing their benefit premiums well above what workers can afford. Overall, workers' premium payments rose 27 percent for single coverage and 16 percent for family coverage in 2002, per the AFL-CIO's report. The ranks of those without health insurance rose to more than 41 million in 2001.

In other words, that whole mass of people that Keynesians depend on to drive two-thirds of the U.S. economy aren't in a good position to spend money past rent, doctors and food. Even when one sees a positive bump, such as a 2.6 percent jump in retail sales in February, it is undercut by more ominous reports, to wit, that sales rose only 1.2 percent once one factors out profiteer-inflated gasoline sales, according to Unity Marketing of Stevens, Pa. Little wonder that The Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index fell to 64.0 in February, the lowest measure since October 1993.

To somehow mitigate his confabulation that growth exists somewhere in this miasma, Fleischer inevitably defaults to the economic stimulus plan, implying that if Congress will just play ball, a wealthier wealthy will create jobs. It's the long-discredited trickle-down theory, so preposterous that more than 450 economists, 10 of them Nobel laureates, took out a full-page ad in The New York Times in February to decry it. It's made more preposterous by the hard empirical evidence that it has never worked, that the money will just wing its way offshore to circumvent disgruntled American workers who may be lucky that aims to find them subsistence-level jobs.

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