Abbott & Costello Take on the Real Unemployment Rate

How the government interprets unemployment numbers is even more absurd than the absurdist comedy duo.

By + More

Barry Levinson is a writer, director, and producer of movies and television.

Unemployment as reported is at 8.3 percent. But it's actually over 16 percent. Some smart statistician came up with a distinction, a slight of hand to make the unemployment number tolerable rather than frightening. The concept was simple: 8.3 percent are unemployed and are actively looking for work. The 16 percent includes those who gave up and are no longer actively looking for work. So those casualties are no longer counted. They cease to exist. The 8.3 percent is a fake, a sham, and worthy of an Abbott and Costello routine. If that great comedy team were still alive, the routine on our unemployment woes might go something like this:

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

COSTELLO: I want to talk about the unemployment rate in America.

ABBOTT: Good Subject. Terrible Times. It's about 8 percent.

COSTELLO: That many people are out of work?

ABBOTT: No, that's 16 percent.

COSTELLO: You just said 8 percent.

ABBOTT: 8 percent unemployed.

[Check out the U.S. News Economic Intelligence blog.]

COSTELLO: Right 8 percent out of work.

ABBOTT: No, that's 16 percent.

COSTELLO: Okay, so it's 16 percent unemployed.

ABBOTT: No, that's around 8 percent...

COSTELLO: Waits a minute. Is it 8 percent or 16 percent?

ABBOTT: 8 percent are unemployed. 16 percent are out of work.

COSTELLO: If you are out of work aren't you unemployed?

ABBOTT: No, you can't count the "Out of Work" as unemployed. You have to look for work to be unemployed.

[See a slide show of Mort Zuckerman's 5 Ways to Create More Jobs.]

COSTELLO: But they are out of work!!!

ABBOTT: No, you miss my point.

COSTELLO: What point?

ABBOTT: Someone who doesn't look for work, can't be counted with those who look for work. It wouldn't be fair.

COSTELLO: To who?

ABBOTT: The unemployed.

COSTELLO: But they are all out of work.

ABBOTT:No, the unemployed are actively looking for work ... Those who are out of work stopped looking. They gave up. And, if you give up, you are no longer in the ranks of the unemployed.

COSTELLO: So if you're off the unemployment roles, that would count as less unemployment?

[See the 10 best cities to find a job.]

ABBOTT: Unemployment would go down. Absolutely!

COSTELLO: The unemployment just goes down because you don't look for work?

ABBOTT:

Absolutely it goes down. That's how you get to 8 percent. Otherwise it would be 16 percent. You don't want to read about 16 percent unemployment do ya?

COSTELLO: That would be frightening.

ABBOTT: Absolutely.

COSTELLO: Wait, I got a question for you. That means ther're two ways to bring down the unemployment number?

ABBOTT: Two ways is correct.

COSTELLO: Unemployment can go down if someone gets a job?

[See the 10 worst cities to find a job.]

ABBOTT:Correct.

COSTELLO:And unemployment can also go down if you stop looking for a job?

ABBOTT: Bingo.

COSTELLO: So there are two ways to bring unemployment down, and the easier of the two is to just stop looking for work.

ABBOTT: Now you're thinking like an economist.

COSTELLO: I don't even know what the hell I just said!

Abbott & Costello did a comedy routine about fictitious ball players called Who's On First? The absurdist number of the real unemployed is not a joke.