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The Numbers Racket

Rick Scott and Obama's figures may sound impressive, but “job creation” does not equal recovery.

One of the more obnoxious trends of the past several years has been STEM fetishism, the widespread assumption that particular fields of study are inherently more real, useful, or productive than others. Although it is often unspoken, the crux of the argument in favor of STEM fields is that they do not resist quantification — and hence are more applicable, measurable, and accountable than those hazy, contradictory social sciences (to say nothing of the humanities).

So strong is the assumed discontinuity between qualitative study and jobs, in fact, that we now have a feverish, bipartisan push to churn out STEM graduates even though we don’t actually need them. But this tendency to favor the objective over the subjective, the definite over the indefinite, is not a new development. Neither is the tendency for rational empiricism to lapse into unthinking ideology. Marxist theorists have long noted the affinities between quantification and mystification. Lukács, for instance, saw capitalism’s need to rationalize and reify the world as an outgrowth of the fetishism of commodities. As the commodity-form becomes universal, he argues, the qualitative, social aspects of life (including consciousness) succumb to the quantitative equivalence implicit in exchange value, becoming vehicles for greater capital accumulation.

In the current era, in which we are subjected not only to capital but to the tyranny of the wonk, it’s important to remember that empirical data still lends itself to mystification, especially when cited by mainstream politicians. Luckily, though, you don’t need dialectics to pierce through the “objective” façade of most reified facts — just some critical thinking skills and an awareness of the class struggle. (It also helps to have some data of your own.) As a Floridian, the slipperiness of statistics is never more apparent to me than when Rick Scott gloats about the state’s “recovery,” stressing the number of jobs created while ignoring their quality. If a recent report is any indication, Florida’s “recovery” is less notable for its quantitative improvements than for radical, qualitative shifts in the structure of the state economy — and not for the better.

Florida’s 2013 budget was widely regarded as a return to relative normalcy after several frugal, post-recession years. With much self-congratulation, the legislature restored most of the education funding cut in 2012. Scott even came out publicly for $2500 across-the-board raises for school teachers.

It appeared to many that the state’s economic health was slowly improving. With the recession several years past, tax revenues were up, the unemployment rate was down, and Scott’s declaration that “it’s working” seemed at least nominally true. Gearing up for the 2014 campaign, the governor criss-crossed the state, touting the jobs added since he took over and taking credit for Florida’s steadily declining unemployment rate. This relentless economic boosterism based almost exclusively on raw jobs numbers is something Scott shares with President Obama. And, to some extent, they’re right: there has been, on paper, something resembling a recovery. But the distribution, as always, is in the details — and a closer look at the types of jobs created in Florida and the reason for the improved unemployment rate says a lot about the economic restructuring happening in Florida and around the country.

On Labor Day, Florida International University’s Research Institute on Social and Economic Policy released their annual “State of Working Florida” report. This year, the report takes a broader view of economic changes in the state since the year 2000 — and the changes are dramatic indeed. Between 2000 and 2011, Florida’s real household median income declined by 11.5% — meaning the typical FL household now earns $5,668 less than it did when Star Trek: Voyager was still on the air.

As incomes declined, poverty skyrocketed — increasing by nearly 50% between 2007 and 2011. Approximately one in four Floridians now lives near or below the poverty line. The report also exposes the state’s much-vaunted “low cost of living” as little more than a sham: transportation, housing, and other consumer costs all saw substantial increases over the past decade or so. All this in a state with the second most regressive tax system in the country, a regime in which the poorest 20% pay 13.2% of their income in taxes while the top 1% pay a measly 2.3%. You can almost feel the squeeze.

Unsurprisingly, debt is also up — by 24% since 2003. As the report notes, the increase in debt is due in part to rising tuition in a state in which higher education is often touted as relatively inexpensive. But tuition hikes have been a constant yearly occurrence for the past decade, increasing by 78.33% between 2000 and 2011, and it remains doubtful whether a college degree will remain affordable for working-class Floridians.

In 2013, Rick Scott took a seemingly hard line on tuition hikes and was successful in staving them off, at least for the year. But it’s difficult to see Scott’s stance as anything more than neoliberal opportunism, a way of forcing public universities to “increase efficiency” (read: cut labor costs) by denying them the short-term relief of a tuition hike. This is part of Scott and the legislature’s long-game with the state university system. Without a firmly anti-austerity opposition (Florida liberals generally assume the need for budget tightening), the long march to privatization can proceed without the immediate need for further state cuts. The plan appears to be working. USF president Judy Genshaft is busy restructuring professor pay along ed reform lines, while Florida’s newest university won’t even have a tenure system in need of dismantling. Meanwhile, administration is sucking up what remains of the meager state funding. Between 2007 and 2011, UF cut full-time and tenured faculty by 9.4%, yet increased executive and administrative positions by a whopping 56.7%. So when UF president Bernie “market tuition” Machen beams about the $300 million restored by the legislature this year, remember that much of it is being directed away from students and faculty – and towards rich assholes like him.

In addition to the decline in real wages and the expansion of personal debt, the whole nature of the state’s labor force is changing. The public sector is quietly bleeding, despite the 2013 budget’s inclusion of “raises” for state workers (the first in six years) and, as the report notes, the numerical stability of the sector since 2000. Scott, of course, has no problem bragging that Florida now has a mere 5.2 state workers for every 1,000 residents, the lowest ratio in state history. His own budget proposed the elimination of 3600 public sector jobs, even as he garnered bipartisan praise for ameliorating last year’s cuts to public education and funding teacher raises. But this apparent pivot by Tallahassee contrasts wildly with material reality in the rest of the state: at the county level, Florida’s public education system is still deep in austerity mode. 525 jobs eliminated in Marion County, 182 in Manatee, 81 in Lake – this sort of thing adds up. When combined with school closures in Brevard, the crowdfunding of education in Alachua, and successful privatization efforts in Broward and Volusia, the future of public education in Florida is still very much in question. Contrary to the claims of the politicians and pundits, there has been no reversal of austerity – only the devolving of responsibility to city and county governments.

As for private employment, Florida has long had a monstrous service sector (we are the land of Disney, after all), but it appears to be growing in the wake of the Great Recession. Between 2000 and 2012, service sector employment expanded by more than 10.5%. To put this in perspective, employment in the manufacturing and construction industries declined by 33.62% and 29.38%, respectively, during the exact same period. The service sector now accounts for 91% of all nonfarm private employment in Florida – and as many of us know from firsthand experience, service jobs tend to be badly paid, precarious, and non-unionized. Many of these new jobs are in the leisure, hospitality, and retail industries – and despite the powers-that-be citing this as evidence of an innate “hospitality culture” among Floridians, all it really demonstrates is the limited “success” of the recovery. Full-time work is still hard to come by. According to the report, the share of part-time workers in the state increased by 17.68% between 2000 and 2012. Three out of every ten part-timers in Florida wants a full-time job but can’t find one. So instead, they’re forced to cobble together an existence by working multiple jobs for miniscule wages.

And that’s if you actually get a job. The declining unemployment rate endlessly referenced by Scott is, depending on the source, either pretty damn misleading or grossly obfuscatory. The legislature’s own research body found that 36.4% of the drop in the unemployment rate is attributable to people either giving up the job hunt or delaying entrance into the labor force. The rate, of course, only covers the officially unemployed – and Florida makes it so difficult to apply for benefits that only 15% of unemployed workers are actually receiving them. Also left out of the numbers are Florida’s chronically underemployed: the report found that the statewide share of underemployed workers grew by 146% between 2000 and 2012. Including them in the statistics would more than double the current rate. It’s worth noting too that the state’s official unemployment rate has barely moved since May, only ticking down a tenth of a point last month due to further contractions in the labor force. This stagnation might indicate that we’re reaching the limit-point of data-driven “job growth” and entering a period in which 7% unemployment is simply shrugged off by politicians as the best of all possible worlds.

For example, the rate of job creation in Florida is so slow that the state won’t get to pre-2007 levels even if Scott keeps his 700,000 job promise. 900,000 jobs are needed if the state is going to keep up with the average monthly addition of 2,900 people to the working-age population. This is a dilemma that mirrors the national situation. As CEPR recently made visible in a striking comparative graph, the “depth and duration” of the 2007–2008 recession is far worse than the previous three recessions. Even the Volcker Shock-induced “Reagan recession” of the early 1980s was less lengthy. And whatever gains have been made during the tepid recovery have been unevenly distributed — even in terms of geography and employment. As Colin Gordon notes, there are still “35 states with fewer jobs than they had when Mike Huckabee was the Republican frontrunner to succeed George W. Bush.”

That’s a telling statistic and evidence of a potentially seismic shift in the national economy. Florida, ground zero of the housing crash, was one of the states hit hardest by the recession, but its New Normal of massive but quantitatively obscured un(der)employment, apocalyptically paired with large-scale public disinvestment, could be the model for the next decade or so of national economic “growth.”

Unless you’re one of the lucky few to personally experience this elusive recovery, you’re likely to be bothered by that. As much as I love my home state, its merciless economy — the unholy child of fourteen consecutive years of Republican rule — isn’t a source of personal pride. It certainly isn’t something to be emulated at the federal level. And despite what Scott and Obama say, it’s not working — not for us, anyway. The figures may sound impressive, but “job creation” does not equal recovery.

At best, job creation is merely an inadequate palliative for years of deep recession. At worst, it’s an active strategy for redirecting wealth upwards and further immiserating the working class. Quantify that.