• ZipDialog Explainer: What Do the Unemployment Numbers Mean?

    Each month, we hear news reports about “today’s unemployment figures,” numbers that are currently very good and getting better.

    What do those unemployment numbers measure? Are there different ways to figure them?

    Basically, the numbers we hear are the “top line” numbers, collected by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), based on their surveys. But, just as the Dow-Jones Average is only one measure of how the overall stock market is doing, those top line numbers are only one gauge of employment.

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    The goal here is simply to explain what those unemployment numbers include and what they leave out.

    First, the official BLS numbers come from sample surveys, which are adjusted later as additional data comes in.

    Second, the numbers need to be adjusted for seasonal-weather effects. If we didn’t do that, then we couldn’t fairly compare unemployment in January and July. So, we adjust for known seasonal effects. The problem is that the average effects for January may not apply to this January. Perhaps it is warmer than normal so more construction can be done outdoors. Or perhaps a major storm knocked out power. These differences mean seasonal adjustments are always approximate. That’s why it is more reliable to look at trends and averages.

    BLS data includes both seasonally-adjusted and raw numbers, but the news reports only the adjusted number. That’s reasonable. Sometimes, they add the caveat that this year’s weather may tilt the numbers in one direction or another.

    Third, there are different ways to decide

    • Whether someone is fully employed, unemployed, or underemployed (either working fewer hours than full-time or working in a lesser position), and
    • Whether someone is part of the potential work force or not. Are they of working age and fit to work, mentally and physically? Are they actually looking for work?

    Since there are different ways to answer these questions, the BLS offers several ways of measuring unemployment, from U1 to U6. These are the 3 most important:

    1. U1: The narrowest measure of unemployment.
      • Persons unemployed 15 weeks or longer, as a percent of the civilian labor force
    2. U3: The standard measure–the one reported in the news
      • Total unemployed, as a percent of the civilian labor force
      • These are people who are without jobs and have actively looked for work within the past four weeks
    3. U6: The broadest, most comprehensive measure
      • Total unemployed, plus all persons marginally attached to the labor force, plus total employed part time for economic reasons, as a percent of the civilian labor force plus all persons marginally attached to the labor force

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    These numbers usually go up and down in sync, but not always. When the job market gets stronger, some people move off the sidelines and begin hunting for jobs again. If they don’t find them right away, their failure actually increases the U3 unemployment number (since they had not been counted as unemployed when they were not actively looking).

    Since we mostly hear about the U3 rate, it is important to understand who is not included. If I were laid off, age 39 as the Chicago White Sox backup shortstop and stopped looking for work because I knew nobody was hiring 39 year-old shortstops, I would not be counted as unemployed. Why? Because I wasn’t looking for work.

    If I decided, as a last resort, to work 10 hours a week coaching a high-school baseball team, I would be counted as employed, even though I wanted to work 40 hours. So, the U3 rate leaves out some people that you or I might consider “unemployed” or “underemployed.”

    To get this larger picture, you can look at a more comprehensive measure, such as U5 or U6.

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    Fortunately, the numbers on all these measures is good and getting better. Here are the seasonally-adjusted numbers.

    Here is the ten-year trend for U3,  showing the drastic rise with the financial crash and the steady improvement since unemployment peaked in late 2009. If GDP growth had been stronger, the numbers might have been better sooner. But the Obama Administration can rightly look at this steady improvement in employment numbers and tout it as a major achievement.♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦

  • ZipDialog Explainer: Key charts showing America’s Drug Epidemic and the Violent Gangs who Profit

    Today’s ZipDialog Roundup included a story about violence by the notorious MS-13 gang, originally from El Salvador, now entrenched across the US. Engaged in a wide range of crimes, it is still mainly a drug cartel.

    Today’s story was about several bodies, tortured and mutilated, found on Long Island. Police attribute to crimes to the MS-13 drug gang.

    A friend wrote that she knew judges in the area and that are reporting large numbers of rapes and other violent crimes by the El Salvadorans.

    My Response

    Comment: These drug-selling gangs are a scourge. It is stunning that, for so long, it was considered bad form to even talk about them because they were “immigrants.”

    That’s when PC becomes truly dangerous: it blocks a serious discussion of the problems. The problems don’t disappear; it just means the most extreme voices speak about them and, sadly, find a hearing.

    We need good people to come here from all over the world, not cartels selling drugs. And we need to be able to talk about the issues honestly, without slipping into racist generalizations or, conversely, being falsely accused of them.

    The Crucial Data

    Here is some vital data, in a few charts based on official sources (the Drug Enforcement Administration, Centers for Disease Control, and so on). To see a more complete report, go to the 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment (here) It is painful reading, but it is essential for an informed debate on these issues, which range from drug treatment to sanctuary cities.

    The increasing use has led to increasing deaths, not only because “regular” heroin is deadly but because it is increasingly dosed with lethal opioids, particularly fentanyl.

    While violent deaths from other sources are steady or declining, those from drug poisoning are rising.

    The “demand side” is obviously an internal US problem.

    The “supply side” are gangs who bring the drugs in, mainly from Mexico.

    It’s not just heroin coming across the southern border. It’s also cocaine, mostly from Columbia.

    The fentanyls come from legitimate drug manufacturers, who products are channeled into illegal uses, and, increasingly, from China. Some is smuggled directly into the US. Some comes across the US border after being shipped through Mexico or Canada.

    There are a number of competing Latin American gangs who sell these drugs, as the data from Texas clearly show.

    But no one should think these gangs are limited to border regions. They have spread out across the United States. Rooting them out is, quite rightly, a high-priority issue.

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    Thank you to Marcia Sukenik Weiss, whose thoughtful comments prompted this outline of the epidemic.

     

     

  • ZipDialog Explainer: What is a Passover Seder?

    What is a Passover Seder?

    Two friends asked various questions about what the Seder is, how it is conducted, what people traditionally eat, and so on.

    Glad to respond via ZipDialog’s new feature: “The Explainer,” which seeks to offer clear, succinct answers to reader questions.

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    The Passover Seder celebrates the Jewish people’s exit from slavery in Egypt, a story told in the book of Exodus. It is family-and-friends dinner celebration, held each spring. The date varies because it is set by the lunar calendar, just as Easter is. The connection to Easter is no accident. Jesus’ Last Supper was a Passover Seder. Both use common symbols of springtime rebirth, such as eggs and lambs.

    So, what happens at a seder?

    The main point is to read the story of the Exodus as a group activity with friends and family, with periodic prayers over wine, food, and such.

    The service is normally conducted at home, or perhaps a club or synagogue dining area.

    It is not a synagogue service, such as the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

    The content of Passover services varies a bit–in length, in the amount of Hebrew used, and in whether it is celebrated on only the first night or the first two.

    The holiday itself lasts eight days, but the full Seder is normally conducted only at the beginning.

    Matzoh, or unleavened bread, is eaten for the entire week. No leavened bread.

    For Jewish homes that keep Kosher, there are special rules for keeping Kosher on Passover. The point is to ensure that you do not touch, much less eat, leavened foods. That typically requires separate china and silverware and a rigorous cleansing of the house to get rid of all leavened products. What counts as “leavened” differs among rabbis.

    The normal Jewish rule applies: if there are two rabbis, there will be at least three opinions, all deeply held and based on multiple rabbinic sources.

    Although family seders differ, they have a lot in common.

    All Passover Seders 

    • Are based on participants reading together from a “Passover Haggadah,” or prayer book.
      • There are many variations of these prayer books. Book collectors and rare-book libraries have assembled thousands from medieval Europe, the ancient Middle East, and all countries of the Jewish Diaspora
    • Emphasize the Exodus from Egypt in the “present tense,” as if we are reliving the flight to freedom;
    • Ask and answer “Four Questions,” focused on the central question: “Why is tonight different from all other nights?
    • Use the prayer service to answer the four questions, reinforced by eating symbolic foods, such as
      • Horseradish to emphasize the pain of slavery and
      • Parsley dipped in salt water to emphasize the slaves’ sweat and tears and the parting of the Red Sea
    • Include a symbolic plate, with items such as the horseradish, parsley, eggs, and a lamb’s shank bone, which are directly related to the four questions and the prayer service
    • Highlight a specific food, matzoh, which symbolizes the need to leave Egypt hurriedly, without waiting for the bread to rise.

    All Seders stop near the conclusion of the prayer service for a regular dinner (explained below), followed typically the final prayers, some group songs, and a child’s game, hunting for a piece of matzoh (the afikoman) hidden by the adult in charge of the service. The child who finds it receives a small reward, such as sweets or money.

    The regular dinner served on Passover

    What everybody starts with, in my experience, is matzoh-ball soup and some gefilte fish (a mix of fishes, served as a cold patty).

    The main course is usually chicken or lamb–there is no standard.

    Wine is passed around freely and there are multiple times when it is drunk during the service itself, a rare feature among Jewish festivals.

    In 1940s and 50s America, most homes served a dreadful sweet wine: Manischewitz Concord Grape (pronounced Man-i-shev-its).

    Although wine stores are now stocked with fine “Kosher for Passover” wines, all Baby Boomer Seders include a bottle of Manischewitz to remind them how we not only escaped from Egypt, we took at detour through Napa Valley before arriving in the Land of Milk and Honey.

     

    Finally, every Seder ends with the same brief statement of hope: “Next Year in Jerusalem”

    The complete phrase is often said as:

    This year we are here, next year we will be in the Land of Israel.

    This year we are slaves, next year we will be free.

    Next year in Jerusalem. –said joyously at the conclusion of Passover Seder

    There are many interpretations, naturally. Here is mine.

    For Americans, this is not a hope to leave a country we love. We could leave freely if we chose to do so. Most do not, anymore than Irish-Americans or Italian-Americans return to their ancestral homes.

    For Jews, though, the statement has three intertwined meanings.

    First, it underscores a cultural connection to the land where Jews have lived for thousands of years. (We stated this wish at every Passover for centuries, long before anti-Semites began denying Jews had any historic connection to the land of Israel, a truly vile trope.)

    Second, it underscores a connection to Jews across the world, all of whom are saying the same thing in Hebrew and their native languages.

    Third, and most important for observant Jews, it means we will all return to Jerusalem–the Biblical ideal–when the Messiah comes and the Temple is rebuilt. That is why even Jews who live in Jerusalem can pray, “This year we are here. Next year in Jerusalem.”

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    Hat Tip from ZipDialog Explainer to

    * Susannah McCafferty Sanders for asking this question, and to

    * Scott Stantis for raising some related questions after he had attended a Seder this week.

  • New Feature: ZipDialog Explainer. Today’s topic: Egypt’s Coptic Christians

    Another Islamic terrorist bombing is the horrific and all-too-familiar news out of the Middle East. This one was directed at Coptic Christians worshipping in Egypt on Palm Sunday. ISIS has claimed responsibility.

    The media naturally rush to cover the breaking news. That understandable and completely proper. ZipDialog tries to find the best and clearest report and add some brief commentary. (For instance, today’s terror bombings are well covered by Reuters.)

    Sometimes, though, we need a little background to understand the breaking news.

    That’s the goal of this new feature, “ZipDialog Explainer.” It aims to provide some essential background and do it succinctly. 

    The topic could be anything in the news, from the economy and technology to popular culture in other countries.

    Most ZipDialog posts will continue to be news and commentary, with occasional injections of blues and humor. When an “explainer” topic arises, we’ll include that, too. Feel free to suggestion them.

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    Who and What are Egypt’s Coptic Christians?

    Coptics are the largest branch of Christianity in North Africa and the Middle East, including Egypt. The exact number in Egypt is disputed. Estimates range from 6 million to 20 million. There are about 80 million Egyptians, making it the largest Arab country. (Like many non-democratic states, Egypt is not eager to count various social groups, fearing the political impact when the true numbers become known.)

    Christianity in Egypt dates to the very beginning to the religion and established some of its early features, such as monasticism.

    The distinctive branch of Coptic Christianity dates to a church council in the fifth century, when local leaders differed from their counterparts in Rome and Constantinople over the nature of Jesus’ divinity, as well as the relationship between his divinity and humanity.

    The name itself comes from the Greek and is based on an earlier name for Memphis, the original capital of Ancient Egypt.

    Organizationally, the Coptic Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria has jurisdiction over all Africa, which is why the terrorist bombings in that city carry special significance for all Christians in the region–and for Islamists who wish to drive Christianity out of its historic home in the Middle East. In fact, the Coptic Pope had just completed a service in one of the churches bombed.

    There have been deadly bombings and attacks on Coptic Christian homes for many years, especially since 2010.

    One silver lining: after a deadly 2010 bombing in Alexandria left 21 dead, thousands of Muslims came to the Christians’ defense, standing stood guard as human shields so Coptics could attend Christmas Mass in January 2011.

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    If you have a topic to suggest, please let ZipDialog Explainer know.  You can email charles.lipson (at) gmail