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David Post: Who's on unemployment? Ask Abbott and Costello

Great news!
  The economy added 120,000 new jobs in November, pushing the unemployment rate down from 9 percent to 8.6 percent, the lowest since President Obama’s second month in office.
  Actually, the private sector picked up 140,000 new jobs because governments laid off 20,000 people.
That should make everyone happy. Democrats need unemployment to go down if they are to have a chance at keeping the White House and some voice in the Congress. Republicans will crow about the decrease in government workers. 
 But wait. The number of unemployed dropped almost 600,000, from 13.9 million to 13.3 million, but only 120,000 new jobs were created. How does that math work?
 No economist or accountant or mathematician can explain that.
 Only a moviemaker can explain these numbers.
 Barry Levinson, a producer and director with more than three dozen movies to his credit, including “Rain Man,” decided the economy isn’t just confusing. It’s comedy. He revised Abbott and Costello’s famous “Who’s on First” routine to explain how the Department of Labor measures unemployment.
 Here’s what Levinson wrote:

COSTELLO: I want to talk about the unemployment rate in America.
ABBOTT: Good subject. Terrible times. It’s 8.6 percent.
COSTELLO: That many people are out of work?
ABBOTT: No, that’s 16 percent.
COSTELLO: You just said 8.6 percent.
ABBOTT: 8.6 percent unemployed.
COSTELLO: Right 8.6 percent out of work.
ABBOTT: No, that’s 16 percent.
COSTELLO: Okay, so it’s 16 percent unemployed.
ABBOTT: No, that’s 8.6 percent…
COSTELLO: WAIT A MINUTE. Is it 8.6 percent or 16 percent?
ABBOTT: 8.6 percent are unemployed. 16 percent are out of work.
COSTELLO: If you are out of work you are unemployed?
ABBOTT: No, you can’t count the “out of work” as the unemployed. You have to look for work to be unemployed.
COSTELLO: BUT THEY ARE OUT OF WORK!!!
ABBOTT: No, you miss my point.
COSTELLO: What point?
ABBOTT: Someone who doesn’t look for work can’t be counted with those who look for work. It wouldn’t be fair.
COSTELLO: To who?
ABBOTT: The unemployed.
COSTELLO: But they are ALL out of work.
ABBOTT: No, the unemployed are actively looking for work. Those who are out of work stopped looking. They gave up. And, if you give up, you are no longer in the ranks of the unemployed.
COSTELLO: So if you’re off the unemployment roles, that would count as less unemployment?
ABBOTT: Unemployment would go down. Absolutely!
COSTELLO: The unemployment just goes down because you don’t look for work?
ABBOTT: Absolutely it goes down. That’s how you get to 8.6 percent. Otherwise it would be 16 percent. You don’t want to read about 16 percent unemployment do ya?
COSTELLO: That would be frightening.
ABBOTT: Absolutely.
COSTELLO: Wait, I got a question for you. That means there are two ways to bring down the unemployment number?
ABBOTT: Two ways is correct.
COSTELLO: Unemployment can go down if someone gets a job?
ABBOTT: Correct.
COSTELLO: And unemployment can also go down if you stop looking for a job?
ABBOTT: Bingo.
COSTELLO: So there are two ways to bring unemployment down, and the easier of the two is to just stop looking for work.
ABBOTT: Now you’re thinking like an economist.
COSTELLO: I don’t even know what the hell I just said!
• • •
David Post is a co-owner of the Salisbury Pharmacy and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.

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