Tag: Misery Index

Unselfing, Marys and Marthas: Winter of Discontent, or Mind of Winter?

 

“One must have a mind of winter… And have been cold a long time… not to think / Of any misery in the sound of the wind,” the January wind. So says Wallace Stevens in his poem, The Snow Man. Misery and discontent aren’t identical, but a series of small miseries — unrelated to wintry weather — means February snuck up on me this year, almost as if January never happened, so misery must do for my “winter of discontent”. To “the listener, who listens in the snow,” hearing the sound of the wind, the poem promises if he becomes “nothing himself” he’ll “behold[] / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” People “cold a long time” can go numb, of course, and numbness is a kind of “nothing” obliterating misery. But numbness seems insufficient for a “mind of winter”.

For our own survival, we see winter’s cold as hostile. Our success as biological beings depends on our sensing discomfort, in order to mitigate risk before it’s too late. Concern for our own comfort is a form of self-regard that isn’t optional, if we care to live. Nonetheless, necessary self-regard is still self-regard. A mind of winter leaves self-regard behind. And so, it sees wintry beauty — the snowy, frozen world lit with “the distant glitter / Of the January sun” — simply because it is there to see, irrespective of what it might mean to the self. Winter in itself isn’t hostile, just indifferent: self-regard makes the indifference seem hostile. A mind of winter is “unselfed”.

Time to Replace the Misery Index with an Anxiety Index?

 

110916jobs

The current US “misery index” — inflation rate plus unemployment rate —  is 5.06 percent (through last September). That’s the lowest level since April 1956 when the MI was 4.75 percent.

But are Americans as happy and confident as they’ve been since the postwar boom? Even more so than the 1990s? Doubtful. While consumer sentiment has rebounded strongly since Great Recession lows, it’s still below where it was during Bill Clinton’s presidency. And nearly two-thirds of Americans think the country on the wrong track.

The Misery Index is at a 56-Year Low. It Needs to be Replaced.

 

030215miseryIf you judge the US economy according to the 1970s-created Misery Index, times are pretty good. Inflation is low (thanks in part to low gas prices), unemployment is down (the Not-So-Great Recovery continues), therefore the Misery Index suggests an economy brimming with joy and contentment. And some other measures confirm that take. As the WSJ’s Josh Zumbrun notes in his piece on the index: “Economists may have caveats about the Misery Index; but consumers have fewer hang-ups. The Conference Board’s measure of Consumer Confidence and the University of Michigan’s Consumer Sentiment index in January reached the highest since 2007 and 2004, respectively.”

A few points here:

First, among those caveats that Zumbrun mentions is that the official jobless rate may be giving a misleading picture of labor market health. While the 5.7% U-3 rate is just 1.3 percentage points above its pre-recession low, the broader U-6 unemployment-underemployment rate is 3.4 points above its pre-recession nadir. What’s more, the employment rate — the share of non-jailed, non-military adults with any job —  is still way closer to its recession low than its pre-recession high. And while job creation is up, wage growth has been pretty stagnant.