New Labor Department numbers hit the street on September 6, and it appears there may be reason for a modest celebration. August was relatively kind to us: payrolls are up by almost 200,000, unemployment is down to a four-year low, and a second-quarter GDP growth rate of 2.5% sharply beat the 1.1% first-quarter rate. There’s talk about what this means for the Fed’s current strategy of buying $85 billion of mortgage and Treasury securities per month in order to increase the flow of credit in a recovering economy. As of a month ago, the Fed showed no signs of changing its tune, but these new Commerce and Labor Department figures are stronger than expected and may signal its time to start tapering off the asset-buying stimulus. So on Labor Day 2013, what does all this mean for the average American?
Sometimes, statistics seem to have emotions, or at least they depict them. When it comes to the economy, confidence (or lack thereof) is one of the most important emotions in the game. As Stan preaches in the Margaritaville episode of South Park, “The economy is just an idea, made up by people, thousands of years ago. The economy is not real. And yet, it is real ... Faith is what makes an economy exist.”
So today is America’s big day off. What’s the mood out there? Well, 76% of Americans do not trust that they will be able to make big-ticket purchases. Seventy-two percent do not trust in the future of their place in employment, and 62% do not trust their regional economy. Those numbers don’t exactly scream optimistic recovery.
While the government, the banks, and the elite discuss GDP and Fed policy, the American people are still hobbling into this holiday. If you look at the trend in Google News searches within the U.S. for terms like “Syria war” and “NSA,” you see quick and clear developments in the objects of our attention: both topics going from complete afterthoughts to headlines. The latter is already dropping off our radar as the former erupts, because we primarily search the news for the hottest interest of the day. However, if you look at the search trend among American users for “U.S. economy,” you see a remarkably different graph, one simultaneously messier but more stable overall. Looking at its sinusoidal fluctuations, one certainly sees peaks and valleys. Since 2008, though, the average interest level has remained fairly constant and significant. It is like a persistent state of unease, almost as though we’re not quite sure how we’re supposed to feel. Have we recovered yet? Are we recovering? Will things ever go back to the way they were?
My answer to that final question is no, but it’s an optimistic “no.” No, I do not believe manufacturing employment will ever be what it once was. No, I do not believe striking fast food workers will get their wish of a doubled minimum wage. I agree with Tom Friedman in The World is Flat that in an exponentially changing world, “the job of government and business is not to guarantee anyone a lifetime job — those days are over,” but I also agree with him that “government can and must guarantee people the chance to make themselves more employable.” I believe what will save us is what Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction,” capitalism’s inherent knack for replacing antiquated industries and jobs with new ones. I believe it’s time to get creative and that a day off is the perfect way to start.
Google employees spend a full 20% of their paid working hours just … thinking. They relax, play ping pong, and work on whatever pet project they want. Google does this because they know that it is in often in those moments of comfortable symbiosis, when we’re not feeling the pressure of objectives and deadlines, that our best ideas come to us. Labor Day gives 20% of our first September work-week back to us to hit the beach or the mall, to fire up the grill, to mingle and absorb each other’s subjective influence, to do whatever makes us happy. Yes, America and its people desperately need some amazing new ideas, but who knows? Maybe those ideas are simmering right along with the hamburgers. So for now, enjoy the day off. Have faith.