Fireside chat with Russ Roberts.

Imagine a cozy fieldstone fireplace in a rustic wooden lodge in a remote part of the Rocky Mountains on a cool summer’s eve. The sun’s just setting and it smells of spruce, bear fur rugs, and hand-warmed cognac…

From : Pete D <>
To : Russ Roberts <

Dear Mr. Roberts,

As a regular listener of EconTalk for over five years,i  I’ve gained immensely from your contributions to economics.ii First put on to your show my Nassim Taleb after his third interview with you,iii I’ve enjoyed nearly your entire archives, even many episodes more than once. With this in mind, I might humbly suggest a guest for your consideration – Sebastian Junger – author of Tribe : On Homecoming and Belonging. It’s a light read but it nails home the troubles facing the “modern leisure society,” as it were, including issues ranging from PTSD to litteringiv to community connection.v I don’t have any personal affiliation with him, but his media inquiries seem to be outlined here :

That on the table, and somewhat relatedly, I’d also like to discuss your frequent and frankly unwarranted regurgitation of USG statistics regarding unemployment. What 5% ? Try 40% dood. As a student of history and a stout opponent of both statistical fallacies and abuses of data, you of all people should know better than to reduce the level of your discourse with such simplistically hollow, politically expedient, and obviously manufactured “data,” the likes of which wouldn’t be out of place in Stalin’s USSR. Yes, the Progressive Soviets might’ve produced 40 million shoes last year, but they skimmed over the part where they were all size 7 girl’s left-footed shoes. So too is it with the USG’s official “unemployment” figures – which require that so many ridiculous hoops be jumped through and over such a specific interval of time and not if you’re excluded for reason x y z lest your number be plunked into another convenient and altogether less visible category – that it borders on farce. It may not be entirely visible from the comfortable confines of Maryland, but there’s little question that the effective unemployment rate is closer to 40% in the US at the moment based simply on the number of Americans claiming more than full-time minimum wage for salaried work, a tragic figure that more than explains the social ills you and your guests frequently (and thoughtfully) aim to explain. I know that you frequently wear “Hats” and that one of the ones you wear bear is “Devil’s Advocate” verging on “Troll,” but the “5%” thing bears no water whatsoever and is frankly a pallid prior from which to engage in constructive debate. It really can’t stand.

Granted, perhaps this is a nitpick too far and perhaps you don’t have any faith in the published figure yourself, but having heard it now a few times in recent episodes with what appeared to be your “Normal Russ Hat” on, I felt it necessary to draw your attention to the sordid state of affairs in the land of fudged numbers, corn-infused gummi bears, and very fine podcasts. Keep up the show. My walks to work wouldn’t be the same without you.

Your fellow member of The Tribe,vi

Pete D

From : Roberts, Russ <>
To : Pete D <>

The methodology of the unemployment rate hasn’t changed in decades, as far as I know.vii So when times were good in say the 80s and 90s and unemployment was 5-6% do you think the real rate then was 40%?

It is true that the employment rate is down (ratio of employment to population) but it’s not clear how much of that is people who can’t find work.

I do concede it may be a little more complicated but I don’t think it’s as bad as you think.

I appreciate the encouragement to open my mind and thanks for the feedback.

From : Pete D <>
To : Roberts, Russ <>

Dear Mr. Roberts,

Thank you for the response and the humility. I wasn’t entirely expecting for the former (the latter is something you’ve never lacked, at least on-air).

After a bit of background fact-checking on my end, it appears that the BLS methodology for calculating unemployment was changed since the 1980’s – under both Clinton (link) and Obama (link, link, link), in fact. Not that other Presidents haven’t overseen changes to this politically valuable bit of “data” before the 80’s, but the most recent Democrats haven’t exactly let the opportunity pass them by, so to speak (fwiw I’m non-partisan despite eligibility in Canada’s slightly less bipolar multiparty system). But really, when babysitting or mowing lawns for 3 hours per week is considered “employed,” it’s hard not to be skeptical of the “official” figures. Not that I think the unemployment rate in the 80’s was 40%, but it’s certainly in that range today.

Furthermore, we seem to agree that the employment rate is down, but I’m not sure what you mean by “can’t find work” when the bar for statistical qualification is the aforementioned anything at all. Do you mean to argue that there are people who can’t find a solitary hour of work a week yet are actively looking ? Unless they have serious handicaps – either physical or mental, including an inflated sense of self-worth in the latter category – this is a hard pill to swallow.

In any event, the BLS figures for unemployment are no more useful nor trustworthy than their shameful CPI figures. And everything from the high art market to the air-cooled Porsche market to the cauliflower market gives us a pretty good indication that BLS as a whole is about as useful as a screen door on a submarine. We’d probably all be better off pulling numbers out of Rashi’s hat, eg.

“One spoon”—corresponding to the Torah, which was given by the hand of G‑d. “[Weighing] ten gold [shekels]”—corresponding to the Ten Commandments. “Filled with incense” (קטרת)—Its numerical value corresponds to the 613 commandments.

You see, with a little numeracy, we can draw lines between any two points. So just as incense can correspond to the number of commandments, so too can the published unemployment rate correspond to a President’s popularity and his stage in office.

As ever, thank you for your open mind. It’s a priceless asset.

Best Regards,

To be continued…
___ ___ ___

  1. EconTalk was where I first heard about Bitcoin, incidentally. Unfortunately, Russ’ weekly guest on that April 2011 episode was USGavin, who, with all his usual flair for mousy ineptitude, explained the technology so poorly that I mistook it for a PayPal alternative. SO FUCK YOU GAVING!!!!!1 Bitch, I nevah fahgiv u fo dis. So instead of getting my foot in the door at a $1… But hey, still better than $660 or whatever the ticker on the “exchanges” is these days.
  2. The archives of Contravex are ripe with the fruits of Russ’ weekly show, eg. Blinders ; Wences whacked, Xapo zapped ; It’s called the Soviet-HARVARD illusion for a reason and that reason is Joshua Greene, to name but a few.
  3. viz. Taleb on Black Swans, Fragility, and Mistakes.
  4. To quote :

    This fundamental lack of connectedness allows people to act in trivial but incredibly selfish ways. Rachel Yehuda pointed to littering as the perfect symbol of disunity in society. “It’s a horrible thing to see because it sort of encapsulates this idea that you’re in it alone, that there isn’t a shared ethos of trying to protect something shared,” she told me. “It’s the embodiment of every man for himself. It’s the opposite of the military.”

    In this sense, littering is an exceedingly petty version of claiming a billion-dollar bank bailout or fraudulently claiming disability payments. When you throw trash on the ground, you apparently don’t see yourself as truly belonging to the world that you’re walking around in.

    Perhaps you’ve been to Singapore, Switzerland, or Israel. Perhaps you’ve also been to Egypt, Thailand, or Mexico. Then you’ll surely have noticed that the former trio is fastidiously clean, of a manageable political size, and that it enforces military conscription on its citizens while the latter trio is and has none of these things. It’s perhaps no surprise then that the future for successful states is small, beautiful, and militant : these things go hand-in-hand with one another.

  5. To quote :

    The last time the United States experienced that kind of unity was – briefly – after the terrorist attacks of September 11. There were no rampage shootings for the next two years. The effect was particularly pronounced in New York City, where rates of violent crime, suicide, and psychiatric disturbances dropped immediately. In many countries, antisocial behaviour is known to decline during wartime. New York’s suicide rate dropped by around 20 percent in the six months following the attacks, the murder rate dropped 40%, and pharmacists saw no increase in the number of first-time patients filling prescriptions for antianxiety and antidepressant medication. Furthermore, veterans who were being treated for PTSD at the VA experienced a significant drop in their symptoms in the months after the September 11 attacks.

    The highly curated stats aside, the cohesive effects of war on the home front are well established, be it in London during the raids or during the eminently more atrocious Dresden bombings a few years thereafter by the Allies. Siege forges unity, at least among the survivors. It’s as simple as that.

    But what does long-lasting peace do ? We need but look a few miles south to the United States to find the answers : obesity, humourlessness, socialism, popcorn populism, and the ever-increasing prospects of out-and-out civil war. Pretty ugly innit.

  6. This has to have made his response more probable. How not ? He lives a self-proclaimed “religious life” and, in this kind of circumstance at least, it doesn’t hurt to play to your audience.
  7. Am I a bad person for respecting someone who commits such basic logical fallacies ? This argumentum ad ignorantiam is appalling. But hey, Taleb, Bernie, and Borat aren’t perfect either.

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