Tuesday, February 3, 2009
By the Numbers, or, Do We Buy These Numbers?
January is gone, and I'm beginning to come out of hibernation. It's good to be back. Here is the latest Smart Aleck essay:
Dire numbers tick by us these days – Boeing lays off employees, and Starbucks lays off employees and closes stores. Other employers lay off their workers by the tens of thousands. On the bright side, the US economy declined only 3.8% in the last quarter of 2008. Whoopee.
Tough times, and getting tougher. Something former Senator Daniel J. Evans said in an interview back in the 1970s keeps running through my memory.
Evans managed the affairs of Washington State as Governor from 1965 to 1977, and later served in the Senate, following Henry “Scoop” Jackson. Slade Gorton followed Evans into the Senate, but I only mention that so I can mention that we used to call Slade Gorton “Skeletor.” He earned this sobriquet by bearing a surprising likeness to the Masters of the Universe®™ villain of that name.
Getting back to Dan Evans: the Boeing Bust occurred during Evans’ terms as governor. In those pre-Microsoft, pre-Starbucks, pre-“let’s move the corporate offices to Chicago” times, Boeing employed more people than anyone else in Washington. When Boeing stumbled, Washington stumbled. In those days a famous sign along I-5 read, “Will the last person leaving Seattle turn out the lights?”
I arrived on these beloved moldy shores in 1972 and missed the lowest days of the Boeing Bust. The local economy still ailed in 1972, but improved incrementally over time. Somewhere around mid-decade someone interviewed Dan Evans about unemployment. The interviewer asked, “Are you worried about the 12% unemployment rate?” Evans replied, “Well, it depends on whether you’re looking at it on the way up or on the way down.” He pointed out that Washington was coming back from an 18% unemployment rate.
Those who lost their jobs were forced to find new paths in life. For example, Hammond Ashley, former Boeing employee, became one of the premier string bass builders in the world. I knew about Hammond Ashley because I took a cracked dulcimer to his shop for repair around 1974. His shop lay under the flight path at the south end of the SeaTac runway. When you walked from the green and gray suburban surroundings of Des Moines into his shop and saw the ranks of glowing instruments along the walls, you knew you were in a world of wonder, created from wood and glue and loving care. Although many people left the state seeking opportunities elsewhere, others, like Hammond Ashley, started a new profession, and a new life, right here.
The numbers I heard on the radio last week stated that unemployment is at 8%. Of course, if you lost your job, you experienced 100% unemployment, and the numbers (ONLY 8% unemployment; ONLY a 3.8% decrease in the economy the last quarter) comfort ye not.
We hear all these numbers, but what do they really mean? The numbers that count are: how many numbers do we have in the checking account? How many numbers do we need to keep this roof over our heads? Do we have enough numbers to buy groceries this week? Do we have jobs so we can get more numbers?
It turns out that our ability to control numbers was exaggerated. So what do we do now? All the usual remedies: we share; we cut back; we make do. We plant gardens, mend what is broken, put on a sweater, and drive less. Do these measures wound your pride?
Pride takes a lot of numbers. Pride and his brother shame may have to be two of the things we cut back in these tough times. I’m about 50% sure of that, up from 35% last quarter.