Why are Americans Stumped about the Economy? Nonsense for Analysis

SOURCE ITEMS

Some Federal Reserve policy makers are citing the lowest inflation rate in at least five decades as an alarm bell for the economy. Economists at UBS Securities LLC say the figure isn’t as troubling as it appears. … Among the reasons for slowing inflation are improved efficiency and a stronger dollar, which puts downward pressure on prices of imported goods such as cars and clothing.

“If anything, the price softening is helping to support demand,” and the dollar is set to rise further, said Coffin [an economist at UBS Securities]. … “Households are getting a little bit more purchasing power out of their income growth.”

Michelle Jamrisko, Inflation at 53-Year Low Belies U.S. Demand Vigor: Economy, Bloomberg, June 12, 2013.

COMMENTS

If a stronger dollar means you can buy more T-shirts from Bangladesh, then the manufacturing job growth will be there not here.  Just as importantly, who says you are going to buy another T-shirt or a new Toyota with money saved because a stronger dollar creates lower real prices.  Maybe you just might bank the extra money  or buy a couple more GM stocks.   What happens to demand growth in that case?

Then, there is the other side of the stronger dollar.  While American consumers can buy more T-shirts from Bangladesh with the same wages, the factory owners in Bangladesh have to pay higher real prices for the American parts to keep their sewing machines running.  Maybe they turn to China or Brazil for those parts.   Quite logically, any demand growth at home can easily be offset by losses in demand from abroad.

(Of course, most economists either work for global corporations and investors or support their agendas.  Global corporations and investors don’t care where the demand is rising and where it is falling or where jobs are being created or being destroyed.  Unlike you and me, they are not tied to a particular nation or a particular city or a particular family, so their fortunes do not rise and fall in connection with a particular place or a particular group of people.)

The key point is that supply and demand functions are global.  To write about supply and demand in nation terms is misguided and misguides readers.  The U.S. has to export goods and services to pay for the things we import — although we are now wedded to a way of life in which we buy goods and services made in other countries on credit and then pay our debts by selling ownership of our tangible wealth to global investors in those other countries.

Debt supported buying has obscured the loss of wealth in the U.S.  But, only in the short term can debt do this.   Sooner or later a transfer of real wealth has to take place to clear the debt — then the loss that occurred a decade ago is finally seen for what it is.  (It may well be that one part of the value of  the foreclosed home down the street from you now belongs to an Asian investor and the other part belongs to a Swiss investor.)

In a world economy, what matters for the working people in the U.S. and for working people everywhere else in the world is the structure of global investment decisions that give life to the relationship between global supply and global demand.  Globally, there are now too many businesses and not enough buyers, and tracking the ebbs and flows of demand within the U.S. obscures the far greater power of this global reality over our working lives.

Too Many Well Educated Workers: a Global Problem and a U.S. Policy Dilemma

SEVEN ITEMS FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION

Chart-Tertiary Education enrollment ratiosData source: Global Education Digest 2009: Comparing Education Statistics Across the World, UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2009.

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Chart-Tertiary Education enrollment by regionData source: Global Education Digest 2009: Comparing Education Statistics Across the World, UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2009.

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“Companies no longer need to divide their skills strategies between high-cost ‘head’ nations employing-high skilled, high-waged workers, and ‘body’ nations that are restricted to low skilled, low waged employment. This change has come about via a combination of factors including the rapid expansion in the global supply of high skilled workers, in low-cost as well as high-cost economies, advances in information technologies, and rapid improvements in quality standards in emerging economies, including the capability to undertake research and development.”

Phillip Brown, Hugh Lauder, and David Ashton, Education, globalisation and the knowledge economy, Teaching and Learning Research Programme and Economic and Social Research Council, September 2008.

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“Unemployment is running at 14 percent and record numbers of people are emigrating in search of work. … Ireland’s pitch to China was its usual combination of low corporate tax rates, a well-educated work force of English speakers and ready access to the European Union’s market of 500 million people. The country’s technological skill, particularly in agribusiness and education, was also emphasized.”

Douglas Dalby, Ireland Makes Pitch to Official From China, New York Times, February 20, 201.

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“More people are losing the same gamble as a 33 percent jump in U.S. graduate school enrollment in the past decade … runs headlong into a weaker job market.”

Janet Lorin, Trapped by $50,000 Degree in Low-Paying Job Is Increasing Lament, Bloomberg, Dec 7, 2011.

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[IBM] stopped providing a geographic breakdown of its employees in 2009. At the end of 2008, U.S. staff accounted for 115,000 of its 398,455 employees, according to its annual report that year.

Beth Jinks,  IBM Cuts More Than 1,000 Workers, Group Says, Bloomberg, February 28, 2012.

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“Tech drives the economy, but it doesn’t drive employment. ‘We are a 100-person company and we serve 50 million people. That kind of leverage has never existed before,’ said Drew Houston, co-founder of the start-up Dropbox, a service that stores and shares digital files.

Nick Bilton, Disruptions: In Davos, Technology Moves Center Stage, New York Times, January 29, 2012.

COMMENTS

The assertion that a major impediment to economic growth and reducing unemployment and underemployment is a mismatch between the knowledge and skills most workers have and the knowledge and skills corporations are seeking is repeated often in the media and is widely accepted as true.  Thus, calls for investing in the higher education programs that will create a workforce with the newer and higher end knowledge and skills the corporations want are also common.

The policy experts who make the skills mismatch assertion base it on reports by business leaders that they have a hard time filling certain positions.  Unfortunately, those policy experts make the mistake of generalizing from a sample of workforce recruiting situations that is not at all representative of the larger population of U.S. recruitment situations.

Three reasons shortages of high end workers are not representative:

  • They are almost always geographically localized, concentrated in particular industries, and relatively short term
  • They evolve and move from place to place, but they never disappear; they develop when and where innovation is successful and reflect the nature of the innovation
  • On an ongoing basis, they account for only a small part of the overall demand for high end workers.

Those policy experts also make the mistake of drawing artificial national and sub national boundaries around workforce recruitment activities, ignoring the fact that a growing proportion of the world’s corporations, including smaller domestic corporations now recruit globally.  (And new evidence shows that corporations, not small businesses, account for the bulk of job creation and job destruction — see Floyd Norris, Small Companies Create More Jobs? Maybe Not, New York Times, February 24, 2012. )

The Global Problem

For the world economy as a whole, the salient shortage is the other way around: high end workers face a shortage of opportunities to put their educations and skills to work in good jobs (living wages and adequate benefits, safe working conditions, socially beneficial products and services).  And this mismatch between the supply of high end workers and the demand for their knowledge and skills is getting worse.

The key factors:

  • Global demand for highly educated workers is growing very slowly because the world economy as a whole is growing very slowly;
  • The global supply of highly educated workers is increasing rapidly as nations, states, provinces, and cities invest in education as a way of competing for the business investments that generate good jobs
  • Businesses of every size and in every economic sector pursue competitive advantage by investing in newer technologies than can now do the kinds of communications, evaluation, and decision-making work that most college educations prepare people to do.

Education is a good in and of itself, but global investing in higher education will not solve the long term problems of high unemployment and declining wages and benefits in the world economy.  Public investments in education address the supply side of the global labor market equation, but unemployment and underemployment in a world with an expanding population of workers, including well educated workers is fundamentally a demand side problem.

U.S. Public Policy Dilemma

Again, education is a good in and of itself, but more U.S. investments in higher education will not pay off in better jobs and growing incomes for U.S. workers.  The reasons are tied to extensive U.S. engagement in the world economy:

  • Investments in higher education produce high end workers who become part of the global supply of high end workers; the skills and knowledge of those workers are available not only to U.S. corporations but to the competitors of U.S. corporations
  • Those investments also put more downward pressure on high end wages and benefits in the U.S. because they add to an already excessive global supply of high end workers available to U.S. corporations
  • Investments in programs that increase the demand for high end workers (big government investments in transitioning to green energy sources is often proposed) don’t increase demand only for U.S. high end workers; not only do U.S. corporations outsource work and recruit lower cost workers from other countries, so too do government agencies.

U.S. workers will get more employment opportunities and wage growth from investments in higher education only if the global demand for high end workers is brought into balance with the global supply.  U.S. policy makers, acting alone, cannot cause this to happen.  A much higher level of global management of investments in higher education, investments in job creation programs, and investments in income supports for working people whose labor is not needed is required.

A good model for this is offered by federal government management of the supply and demand for workers in the in the U.S. 1950’s and 1960’s.

In those decades, federal investments in higher education increased substantially, but it also made large investments in job creating programs – notably, investments in the development of military technology, in an ambitious space program, in research across the spectrum of intellectual fields, in new regulatory programs, and in community jobs programs.  It also expanded income supports for workers not easily absorbed into the labor force because of disabilities, age, and skill limitations.

Thus, while higher education investments increased the demand for high end jobs, other government investments increased the supply of high end jobs, low end jobs in both the public and private sectors, and moderated the overall demand for jobs.

U.S. policy makers could and should lead in implementing this model for managing labor force development in the world economy as a whole.  That would serve the interests of U.S. working families.  But they cannot even fully participate in such an effort because American voters believe strongly in American exceptionalism and have an associated strong dislike for multinational government institutions (and for government involvement in economic matters in general).  And that is a real dilemma.

U.S. Workers Are Settling Into a Global Era of Fewer Good Jobs and Declining Incomes

ITEMS FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION

Chart-Missing Civilian Labor Force
Source: Andrew Sum, et al (see citation below quote)

“Following 2007, the pool of hidden unemployed has risen steadily and strongly from 4.7 million in 2007 to close to 6.5 million in 2011; a rise close to 1.8 million or 40%. This was the third largest annual average number of hidden unemployed in the 45 year history for which such data exist dating back to 1967.”

Andrew Sum, Mykhaylo Trubskyy, with  Sheila Palma, The Great Recession of 2007-2009, the Lagging Jobs Recovery, and the Missing 5-6 Million National Labor Force Participants in 2011: Why We Should Care, Northeastern University Center for Labor Market Studies, January 2012

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Change in Average Hourly Earnings of U.S. Employees, 2006 – 2011

Chart-Average Hourly EarningsSource: Historical Data, Current Employment Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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“Spain’s jobless rate for people ages 16 to 24 is approaching 50 percent. Greece’s is 48 percent, and Portugal’s and Italy’s, 30 percent. Here in Britain, the rate is 22.3 percent, the highest since such data began being collected in 1992. (The comparable rate for Americans is 18 percent.)

Thomas Landon, For London Youth, Down and Out Is Way of Life, New York Times, February 15, 2012

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Looking at the changes within countries over time, the overall long-term trend is obvious: the majority of countries have witnessed increases in low-wage employment over the past 15 years. Overall, figure 20 shows that, since the second half of the 1990s, low pay has increased in about two-thirds of countries for which data are available (25 out of 37 countries). … While it is too soon for an assessment of the short-term effect of the crisis on low pay (since few countries have published their data on low pay in 2009), there is little reason to believe that a global recession will have brought about any improvement in the overall situation of low-paid workers.

Global Wage Report 2010/11: Wage policies in times of crisis, International Labour Organization, December, 2010

COMMENTS

In a free market economy, buyers and sellers negotiate prices.  When buyers have lots of choices and sellers don’t, buyers have the leverage to push prices downward.

We have seen this in the U.S. housing market: huge numbers of houses are on the market and an army of builders are waiting in the wings to put even more houses on the market – the ratio of sellers to buyers is very high.  Thus, even though houses are beginning to sell a little better, prices are still falling.

The same thing has happened in the global labor market: the ratio of available workers (sellers) to employers with jobs to fill (buyers) is very high, and it will stay high.  There are several structural reasons:

  • the integration of national economies into a single world economy based on free market principles has made huge numbers of unemployed and underemployed workers newly available to the world’s major employers and many intermediate size employers
  • expanding national education systems are producing a growing supply of skilled workers for the global labor market
  • the global economic crisis of 2008-2009 produced large numbers of business failures and consolidations, reducing the number of employers competing for the growing global supply of workers
  • the production of a given volume of goods and services continues to require fewer and fewer workers as machines and computers do more of the brute work and more of the routine thinking
  • global consumption of goods and services is not growing fast enough to reduce the ratio of available workers to available jobs.

Thus, even though hiring in the U.S. is beginning to get a little better, the bargaining position of U.S. workers, even those who are unionized, continues to deteriorate.  Given this trend, either real U.S. wages and incomes will decline much further, or rates of unemployment, underemployment, and non-participation of working age people in the workforce will remain high.

Employment Optimism? Really? This January was Worse than January 2011 and Adverse Global Economic Forces are Still in Play

ITEMS FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION

Downward Trends in U.S. Civ Labor Force ContinueData source: Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey, Bureau of Labor Statistics

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Private Sector Job Growth is Dominated By Lower Wage Industries

Percent of Private Sector Job Growth By Selected Industries

Jan-11

Dec-11

Jan-12

Goods-Producing

30.3%

32.3%

31.5%

Private Service-providing

69.7%

67.7%

68.5%

Retail Trade

31.0%

2.8%

4.1%

Temporary Help Services

13.5%

3.8%

7.8%

Leisure and Hospitality

-6.7%

8.6%

17.1%

Other services

-5.9%

2.3%

2.7%

Total 4 Selected Service Providing

31.9%

17.5%

31.8%

Data source: Employment Situation Summary Table B, Employment News Release, Bureau of Labor Statistics, February 3, 2012.

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Job Cuts, January 2012 Greater than in January 2011

(Ten Industries with Highest Cuts)

 

January 2012

January 2011

Retail

12,426

5,755

Financial

7,611

2,822

Pharmaceutical

4,071

2,090

Entertainment/Leisure

3,910

1,545

Aerospace/Defense

3,634

3,167

Government/Non-Profit

3,021

6,450

Food

3,000

873

Consumer Products

2,464

1,783

Industrial Goods

2,230

1,874

Transportation

1,770

725

Data Source: 2012 Kicks Off With 28% Surge in Job Cuts, Press Release, Challenger, Gray & Christmas, February 2, 2012.

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January 2012 Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) for Manufacturing Lower than in  2010 and 2011

2010

January

April

July

Oct

56.7

59.0

55.7

57.0

2011

2012

January

April

July

Oct

January

59.9

59.7

51.4

51.8

54.1

Data source: table of Manufacturing Business PMI history, Institute for Supply Management. 

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“The man in charge of a firm with several hundred thousand staff around the world bemoaned that, ‘we live in a world where wealth creation is uncoupled from job creation. This once close connection is ruptured.'”

Tim Weber, Davos 2012: Youth unemployment ‘disaster’, BBC News website, January 28, 2012.

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SMBs in developing countries are keeping pace with their more developed counterparts when it comes to providing employees with smartphones, netbooks/mini notebooks, and media tablets. In some cases, they are actually more likely to provide these products to their staff.

The Consumerization of IT Helps Level the SMB Playing Field Across the World, IDC Says, Press Release, International Data Corporation (IDC), January 25, 2012.

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“This suggests that the labor market has changed in ways that prevent the cyclical bounceback in the labor market that followed past recessions. … Stricter market incentives to control costs in the face of stiff domestic and international competition may also be factors. In addition, anecdotal evidence suggests that recent employer reluctance to hire reflects an unusual degree of uncertainty about future growth in product demand and labor costs. These special factors are not readily addressed through conventional monetary or fiscal policies. But such policies may be able to offset the central obstacle of weak aggregate demand.”

Rob Valletta and Katherine Kuang, Why Is Unemployment Duration So Long?, Federal Reserve Bank of San Franscisco Economic Lettter, January 30, 2012.

COMMENTS

The only way to arrive at optimism about U.S. employment is to focus attention on indicators that are poorly related to unemployment changes (GDP growth, initial unemployment insurance claims, the traditional unemployment rate) and ignore global economic forces that continue to spell trouble for U.S. employment growth

Misleading indicators:

  • An uptick in the rate of GDP growth is misleading about employment growth because machines now play such a large role of in the production and sale of goods and services in the U.S.;  modest upswings in GDP can take place with almost no impact on employment
  • Initial claims for unemployment insurance (UI) get a lot of press, but only about 43 percent of unemployed workers receive UI; unemployment among workers who mostly do not qualify (many workers in retail and service industries) can rise or fall dramatically with little impact on initial claims
  • As is well known, the traditional unemployment rate is a downwardly biased measure of unemployment; it does not count as unemployed persons who have opted to do something other than look for work until prospects improve (e.g., going to school,  taking a self-financed sabbatical, making repairs to the house) and does count as employed persons who want full time employment but can only find part-time employment and persons who are working in jobs beneath their qualifications.

Global forces that undercut U.S. job growth are still in play:

  • Global and U.S. GDP growth rates will be modest through at least 2012 because of financial turmoil, lots of supply, and weak demand
  • The number of competing nations in the world economy has not diminished and very high levels of unemployment are pushing many nations to become even more aggressively competitive
  • Slow global market growth continues, which means the world’s global businesses must continue to relentlessly cut labor and other costs to survive
  • Emerging market countries with skilled workers, advanced production capacities, and much lower production costs will continue to outbid the U.S. for the investments that produce the most jobs per dollar of investment
  • Facing higher production costs in the U.S., much of the investment in the U.S. will continue to be in high tech, high profit activities that produce relative few jobs, and those jobs will be ones for which very few U.S. workers have the required skills.

The labor force participation rate, which is a better indicator of whether we should be optimistic about job growth, has been trending downward for many years.  Taken as a whole, economic signals indicate that this trend is locked in, whatever economists and reporters may wish to read into short term economic indicators.

The Transition To A Clean And Sustainable World Economy Will Change Job Descriptions, But It Will Not Increase Global Job And Income Growth

CONSIDER THE FOLLOWING ITEMS

“While there are conflicting views about whether any changes in total employment would be positive or negative, there are likely to be quite significant impacts in terms of shifting employment patterns between sectors as economic development shifts from “brown” to “green” economic sectors.”

Green Growth Studies: Energy, Preliminary Version, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 2011.

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“Across the range of issues to be addressed, policy initiatives should be designed in terms of: cost-effectiveness, adoption and compliance incentives, and ability to cope with uncertainty and provide a clear and credible signal to investors.”

Towards Green Growth, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 2011. 

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“Many countries are using a menu of policy incentives instead of a single policy approach. Policy makers realize that these incentives need to be coherent, stable and designed for the long-term to be able to attract the necessary funds for robust deployment and strong markets that ultimately will reduce the cost of renewable energy.”

Report of the Secretary-General – Promotion of new and renewable sources of energy (Advance unedited copy), UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Division for Sustainable Development, August 15, 2011.

COMMENTS

Global job and income growth are in trouble whether the world makes the transition to a cleaner and more sustainable economy slowly or quickly.  If the transition is done slowly the world will suffer large job and income losses due to the negative impact of environmental pressures on economic growth.  Losses will also occur because of a poorly designed “green” investment strategy.

If the transition is done quickly, job and income losses due to environmental pressures will be reduced, but more losses will be caused by the “green” investment strategy itself.

The current strategy for transitioning to a clean and sustainable global economy relies heavily on market competition and traditional governmental policy tools to put downward pressures on the costs of producing cleaner energy and to motivate business enterprises to create alternatives to resources that are being depleted.  Thus, the current strategy leaves the institutional forces that are slowly eroding global employment and income levels in tact.

At the core of those institutional forces are the scope and intensity of competition among business enterprises and governments.  Global scale communications, trade agreements, investment flows, and commodity flows now bring many more investors and business enterprises virtually face to face in the same markets.

Faced with many more competitors, business enterprises invest heavily in finding ways to reduce labor costs.  Moreover, governments abet these efforts by helping their domestic business enterprises with policy structures and financial subsidies that encourage investments in machines rather than workers.  In this economic environment, job destruction and wage reductions in some sectors and regions of the world economy generally outpace job creation and wage growth in other sectors and regions of the world economy.

An accelerated “green” transition will exacerbate the gaps between job creation and job destruction, wage growth and wage decline.  It will shift more investment funds to the energy sector, which is very machine and technology intensive.  More investment funds will also go to enterprises engaged in the development and production of resource alternatives, enterprises that tend to be more highly automated and employ fewer workers that the enterprises they replace.  The net result will be a further decline in global demand for workers and lower wages.

The transition to a clean and sustainable world economy can be done without harm to employment and income growth, but only by simultaneously reducing system wide downward pressures on job and income growth.  This can be done by making increased governmental management of global market forces and the increased use of governmental employment and income programs (to supplement private sector employment and compensation levels) components of the “green” transition strategy.

What Happens In Vegas Doesn’t Stay In Vegas: National Policies Have Global Consequences

“Thus, national policies affecting capital flows can transmit multilaterally. This transmission has not been fully appreciated by national policymakers. Further, they may not have incentives to take full account of the cross-border effects of their policies. Looking ahead, the upward trend in the volume of capital flows can be expected to continue, making it ever more important to address the associated cross-border risks.”

The Multilateral Aspects of Policies Affecting Capital Flows, International Monetary Fund, October 13, 2011.

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“These two-way capital flows created a complex web among markets and institutions, some regulated and some not. Against this background, case studies were prepared for European banks and U.S. money market mutual funds (MMMFs) and for German banks and U.S. mortgage-backed securities (MBSs). Another important case is that of the near failure of the American International Group (AIG), which turned out to have complex and systemically cross-border linkages with other global institutions and markets.”

The Multilateral Aspects of Policies Affecting Capital Flows – Background Paper, International Monetary Fund, October 24, 2011.

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“Why might we expect a rise in U.S. bond yields to raise bond yields in other countries? First, openness of financial markets and arbitrage opportunities may mean that interest rate shocks are transmitted across economies. Second, a closer real integration of two economies may imply that a monetary policy shock or an inflationary shock in one economy may lead investors to expect similar developments in another, thus inducing a significant transmission of shocks in bond markets and money markets.”

Vivian Z. Yue and Leslie Shen, International Spillovers on Government Bond Yields: Are We All in the Same Boat?, August 01, 2011, Blog at website of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

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“The trend toward greater diffusion of authority and power occurring for a couple decades is likely to accelerate because of the emergence of new global players, increasingly ineffective institutions, growth in regional blocs, advanced communications technologies, and enhanced strength of nonstate actors and networks.”

Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World, National Intelligence Council, PDF version, November 2008.

———————–Comments———————–

The words in the quotes above are dispassionate, but the realities to which they refer get in our faces every day.  The mix of global economic processes and competitive and uncoordinated national policy making creates a bubbling soup of chaotic change.  (Go-it-alone economic policy making by sub-national and regional governments surely contribute to this soup of chaotic change as well.)

This environment makes decision making and planning very difficult and prone to error for the majority of the world’s investors and business owners and managers. It destabilizes the global world of work and damages the families and communities that depend on that world.  And it confounds policy experts because it is not possible to find logic in the illogical.

Moreover, this environment plays into the hands of the bad actors in the world economy, who promote and thrive on the high volumes of misunderstandings and errors that now plague economic and policy decision making at every level of organization in the world economy.

For more on this topic see my post, Fragmented and Weakened Global Governance Perpetuates the World’s Employment Crisis, September 9, 2011. Also see the topic Economics and Economic Policy (under U.S. Economic Policy heading at right).