The unemployment rate is a big factor in this year's election, since no other single number reveals at a glance the strength of the economy. It now stands at 7.9 percent, which is about where it was when President Obama took office. But that's still way too high for an economy in which 12 million people remain unemployed and many more can't find the kind of full-time work they want.
This year's election is a battle between people who feel the U.S. economy is recovering quickly enough, and others who feel the pace of progress is way too slow. But in some ways, Americans have it good compared with people in other developed countries. The unemployment rate doesn't tell the whole story, but it's worth comparing the job market in the United States to the situation elsewhere. Here, for instance, is the unemployment rate in several other nations:
Japan: 4.2 percent
Germany: 5.4 percent
Netherlands: 5.4 percent
Canada: 7.4 percent
United Kingdom: 7.9 percent
France: 10.8 percent
Italy: 10.8 percent
Euro area overall (17 countries): 11.6 percent
Ireland: 15.1 percent
Greece: 25.1 percent
Spain: 25.8 percent
The U.S. job market, in others words, is weaker than in a few developed nations, but better than in many others. And that's true even though many European nations have strong unions and job protections that make it far harder for companies to lay off workers and streamline. Germany, for example, has a government-backed policy that encourages companies to pursue work-sharing arrangements instead of laying people off during tough times. If the United States had such a policy, it's fair to assume the U.S. unemployment rate would be considerably lower. Japan, meanwhile, may have low unemployment, but it also has an economy that's been stuck in a deflationary rut for more than a decade. People have jobs, but living standards are declining for many, because wages are falling and there's a strong disincentive to spend money. China's economy is obviously an up-and-comer, yet the official unemployment rate of about 4 percent probably excludes factors to which the communist government prefers not to draw attention. And China has its own problems, including a worrisome economic slowdown, millions of disgruntled rural workers, and a property bubble that may foretell a coming crash.
This isn't to argue that Americans should be content with a fragile job market that's putting prosperity out of reach for many. They shouldn't. However, the entire global economy is in the midst of a turbulent transformation that's shaking up labor markets everywhere and rapidly making many traditional skill sets obsolete. The upheaval is causing disruption in most advanced nations. The halting recovery in the U.S. job market is unsatisfying, but it has still added 1.9 million jobs so far this year. That's better than what's happening in most of Europe, where recessionary conditions linger. That suggests the U.S. economy has some fight left in it yet.
The national discussion about the economy is intensely focused on politics, of course, and whether Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney would pursue policies that help the economy heal faster than Obama's have done. It's a fair question. But there is scarcely a nation in the world that appears to be thriving at the moment, and the U.S. economy may be better poised for recovery than most of the others. As J.P.Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon once said, "We suck less." For now, that may be as good as it gets.
Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.