WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 15, 2014
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Meaning behind numbers By ROBERT HIGGS MCCLATCHY-TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE
The U.S. unemployment rate dipped to 6.7 percent in December, stirring considerable joy in Mudville. Before we spend time shouting hurrah, however, we should bear in mind a few other facts and recall that not so long ago an unemployment rate of 6.7 percent would have been considered scandalous. One of the main reasons for containing our joy is that the rate fell from 7 percent in November despite the addition of just 74,000 net new jobs, a weak performance by any measure — and far below the 2013 monthly average of 182,000 new jobs. Another reason for caution is that the standard unemployment measure (U-3) provides a distorted picture of what’s taking place in the job market. A better measure of the health of the job market is total employment: how many people have jobs. After all, it is employment that contributes to our well-being. Jobs, not unemployment, produce the goods, services and earnings that our families rely on. And on this front the picture is grim by historical standards, with 2 million fewer civilians working at the end of 2013 than at the end of 2007, when the economy began to tank. But even this doesn’t tell the full story, because while the economy and job market have been struggling, the population has been growing. This means that a smaller percentage of the job-eligible civilian population — that is, non-institutionalized individuals age 16 and older — has jobs. The employment-population ratio plummeted, of course, during the recession. While the economy has slowly inched its way back since hitting bottom in mid 2009, the ratio of employment to population has been stuck in the 58 percent to 59 percent range ever since — anemic by historical standards. In December, the employment-population ratio remained stuck at 58.6 percent. What these numbers tell us is that the labor market remains in a funk. The latest Bureau of Labor Statistics jobs report clearly shows that employment continues its recovery. Over the course of 2013, the number of unemployed fell by 1.9 million. And since the low point during the recession, more than 7 million jobs have been added. But in terms of total jobs, we’re still in the hole. The collapse of the employmentpopulation ratio is particularly troubling, indicating that something must have occurred since 2008 or 2009 to depress the job market. The White House and its allies don’t want to talk about this issue. They continue to focus on the slowbut-steady monthly job gains and equally slow-but-steady decline in the unemployment rate. Administration critics respond by pointing out that the unemployment statistics are improving because the labor force has been shrinking, with many people abandoning their job searches, retiring sooner than they would have under normal circumstances, or finding ways to qualify for disability, using it as a de facto long-term unemployment insurance program. In December, for example, 2.4 million people were classified as “marginally attached” to the labor force. These individuals wanted and were available for work, had looked for work sometime in the past year, but hadn’t searched for a job in the four weeks prior to the BLS survey. As a result, they were not counted as unemployed, though unemployed they certainly are. While there are many reasons for the sub-par performance, the many (and ongoing) uncertainties related to the future costs of ObamaCare, the Dodd-Frank financial reform act, and other pending regulations and taxes loom large among them. It seems clear from the evidence that these policies have discouraged hiring. For many decades the U.S. population and the U.S. labor force grew in tandem. That is no longer the case. Whatever the reason, one thing is clear: unless the labor force resumes something like its historically normal growth, we cannot expect the economy to resume its historically normal growth.
NFL should let players smoke pot By STEVE FOX SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON POST
It’s been a big year for NFL fans in Denver and Seattle. On the field, the Broncos and the Seahawks had dominant regular seasons and cruised into the playoffs. Off the field, ballot initiatives that passed in 2012 went into effect, making it legal for adults in Colorado and Washington to possess and consume marijuana. So fans in those states now have the option of grabbing a Bud Light (proud sponsor of the NFL) or lighting a bud while watching at home. NFL players, however, do not enjoy the same freedom. Instead, they are subject to drug testing — not just for performance-enhancing substances but for “substances of abuse,” including marijuana. Those screenings tend to be sporadic but can become far more frequent after an initial positive test. Testing positive just once can get a player suspended, without pay, for four games. The Broncos and the Seahawks have each lost key players this season to marijuana-related suspensions. Denver’s Von Miller, the 2011 NFL defensive rookie of the year, missed the first six games for allegedly failing drug tests and failing to comply with league drug testing. And the Seahawks lost cornerback Walter Thurmond for four games during the latter part of the season, reportedly for testing positive for marijuana. Less than a month later, the league suspended Seahawks cornerback Brandon Browner indefinitely for failing a drug test.
Again, it was believed that marijuana was the culprit. These are just a few of the many marijuana-related suspensions handed down by the NFL over the past decade. Such suspensions deny the league and its fans of talented players who are not hurting anyone and are not cheating: Marijuana is not a performanceenhancing drug. There is no reason to punish players for using it in their free time. What makes these suspensions all the more unjust is that marijuana use seems to be pretty common in the NFL. Lomas Brown, a former Detroit Lion and longtime ESPN analyst, estimated in 2012 that at least 50 percent of players use marijuana, a share he said was down from about 90 percent when he entered the league in 1985. Former Seahawk John Moffitt recently echoed Brown’s estimate of at least half, adding: “If you’re an athlete and you’re drinking ‘alcohol,’ you’re deteriorating your body far more than if you’re an athlete and you’re using marijuana.” Sure, unlike alcohol, marijuana is illegal, at least federally. And those opposing it may think that if someone is dumb enough to use an illegal drug, in violation of his employer’s policy, he deserves whatever punishment he gets. But consider a far more serious issue: chronic pain. While some players might use marijuana simply to unwind — just as other players might have a beer or two — many of them also use it for the pain they are subjected to as warriors in a
brutal game. Howard Bryant, senior writer for ESPN the Magazine, made an even stronger appeal last month to the league to reconsider its policies: “Given that marijuana is a legitimate pain reliever — especially for the migraines that can be a byproduct of head trauma — and is far less dangerous and potentially addictive than, say, OxyContin, it is almost immoral to deny players the right to use it.” Bryant’s mention of head trauma is significant. In light of the lawsuits that former players who’ve suffered concussions have brought against the NFL, the league should be especially interested in marijuana’s potential to diminish the long-term effects of brain injuries. As it turns out, recent studies are starting to contradict the notion that marijuana kills brain cells. Last year, researchers at Tel Aviv University in Israel gave low doses of THC, one of marijuana’s primary cannabinoids, to mice either before or after exposing them to brain trauma. They found THC produced heightened amounts of chemicals in the brain that actually protected cells. Weeks later, the mice performed better on learning and memory tests, compared with a control group. The researchers concluded THC could prevent long-term damage associated with brain injuries. So, are diminishing pain and potentially protecting brain cells enough to convince the NFL that players should be allowed to use marijuana? Not necessarily. For some, the same old refrain — “What about the
children?” — still reigns. For example, former Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe says the league’s policy will never change “because of the way kids follow what NFL players do.” Sorry, Mr. Sharpe, but kids who idolize NFL players are already bombarded by beer ads, the contracts for which enrich team owners and, by extension, players. And alcohol is objectively more harmful than marijuana in terms of its damage to the body, its addictiveness and its association with violent behavior. If players use marijuana out of the public spotlight to alleviate their pain or to simply help them relax or sleep during a stressful season, society won’t crumble. The NFL’s current 10-year collective-bargaining agreement was adopted in 2011, so changing its marijuana policy would take some maneuvering. That said, opportunities do exist. For example, it was reported last summer that the league wanted to work with players to increase penalties for driving under the influence of alcohol. Stronger penalties for DUIs in exchange for more lenient policies for marijuana use seems like a fair trade-off for all sides. Not acting will only delay the inevitable. During the span of the current collective-bargaining agreement, it is likely that many more states will make marijuana legal. Instead of waiting, the NFL should address the issue now so that players can derive the benefits of the substance — or simply use it as an alternative to alcohol — sooner rather than later.
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