Rob Douglas: Has America grown comfortably numb?
May 10, 2012
Throughout my life, I've had a front-row seat to the tragedies of others. From investigating inconceivable violent crimes to searching for abducted children, from providing aid to victims of horrific accidents to assisting those who have lost their entire fortune to fraud, I've seen the worst that life has to offer.
If there's one commonality across this spectrum of despair, it is this: No matter how deep the physical or psychological wound, humans adapt to the pain.
To quote Pink Floyd, we become comfortably numb.
Recently, it struck me that the same factors that allow individuals to cope with personal pain may be in play collectively as America adapts to the reality of our nation's economic pain. Even those of us who have escaped the wrath of the recession have friends or extended families that have had their lives torn asunder. Add the daily drumbeat of economic data and statistical evidence that shows the depth and breadth of the fiscal harm to our nation, and it's no wonder that some of us have begun to cope with America's fiscal reality by pretending the crisis has passed.
I fear that far too many of us have become numb to the pain that continues to be inflicted upon our nation by the Great Recession — a recession that violently accelerated and deepened America's self-inflicted wounds that mounted in the past half-century because of citizens and elected representatives who became addicted to private and public debt.
Last weekend, as I read "Thoughts from the Frontline," an economic newsletter published by John Mauldin, I realized how I, too, had become immune to monthly unemployment figures that should shock the conscience. I was working my way through a detailed breakdown of labor statistics for the month of April when the following paragraph jumped off the page and cut through my personal psychological defenses:
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"The longer-term picture of labor force withdrawal is kind of shocking. Total household employment is down by 4.4 million since the Great Recession began in December 2007, and the number of unemployed is up by 4.9 million. The civilian population is up 9.6 million — but the labor force is up just 447,000. The number classed as not in the labor force is up by 9.2 million — and those not in the labor force and wanting a job is up 1.7 million. In other words, just 5 percent of the increase in the adult population over the last 4 1/3 years has found its way into employment; the other 95 percent are not in the labor force."
Allow that last statistic to sink in for a moment or two.
"Just 5 percent of the increase in the adult population over the last 4 1/3 years has found its way into employment; the other 95 percent are not in the labor force."
Having been jolted back to reality, I started looking harder at the economic wounds reflected in the April employment numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the disability enrollment numbers from the Social Security Administration — wounds that we must acknowledge threaten the American way of life. Consider:
■ In April alone, the labor force shrank by 342,000 workers and currently is below where it was when the so-called "economic recovery" began 34 months ago.
■ Currently, the civilian labor force participation rate — the percentage of working-age Americans who are working or actively looking for a job — is 63.6 percent. That is 2.1 percent lower than it was just three years ago and the lowest it has been since 1981.
■ The civilian labor force participation rate for men — including men in their prime earning years (ages 25 to 54) — is at historic lows dating back to when the Bureau of Labor Statistics first published data in 1948.
■ Since Jan. 1, Social Security disability payment beneficiaries have jumped by 539,000. Go back to January of 2009, and the number skyrockets to more than 5 million.
Bottom line: The number of American households drawing a check from the government is escalating rapidly while the percentage of Americans depositing funds to cover those welfare checks is declining rapidly.
If America is to remain an economically vibrant world leader, these trends must be reversed.
While it may be human to adapt to pain, this is no time to grow comfortably numb.
For 20 years, Steamboat Springs resident Rob Douglas was a Washington, D.C., private detective specializing in homicide, political corruption and terrorism. Since 1998, Douglas has been a commentator on local, state and national politics in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Colorado.