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An Economist On The 'Miserable 21st Century'


The U.S. unemployment rate is 4.8 percent. It was 9.3 percent when President Obama took office just over eight years ago. Many news and political analysts have wondered why so many Americans have sounded so angry and despondent when they talk about the economy. The stock market is up, too. Some economists say 4.8 percent is close to full employment.

Nicholas Eberstadt, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute, has written an extended essay for the current issue of Commentary magazine that's earned, well, a lot of comment - left and right. It's called "Our Miserable 21St Century." Nicholas Eberstadt, who's also a member of the visiting committee at the Harvard School of Public Health, joins us from his offices in Washington, D.C. Thanks so much for being with us.

NICHOLAS EBERSTADT: Hey, thanks for inviting me.

SIMON: Well, forgive a baseball analogy, but it seems to me you're saying that looking at something like the unemployment rate - it can be as much a misdirection, if you please, as to looking for signs of economic health as it is to think that whoever gets the most hits wins a baseball game.

EBERSTADT: Yeah. I mean, so we all know that - most important thing is to get on base and then see where things go from there. The most important thing is to have a job that pays. And the unemployment rate does a worse and worse job of reflecting true labor market conditions in the United States. I mean, just to pick one statistic - for every guy between the ages of 25 and 54 - the so-called prime working age is that critical group - there were three guys who are neither working nor looking for work.

SIMON: And then therefore they don't show up in the unemployment stats.

EBERSTADT: Don't show up. They're not even - they're not in the denominator. So what we've seen over the past half-century is a gradual exodus from the work force, first by guys and then, starting around the year 2000, for women, as well. And whatever has happened in the past decade and a half since about the year 2000, it's been powerful enough to cancel and then actually reverse the inflow of women into the work force, which has been maybe one of the most important social trends in the U.S. and in other Western countries in the post-war era.

SIMON: What happens to those people that don't show up in the statistics?

EBERSTADT: We have time use surveys for guys. And according to these self-reports, the prime age guys who were checked out of the labor force basically don't do civil society. They don't do charitable work. They don't do volunteering. They don't do religious activity and so forth. They don't do an awful lot of help around the house. They don't do an awful lot of child care or help with other people in the home, even though you'd think they have nothing. What they do is they spend an awful lot of their day watching, whether it's TV or internet or handheld devices or whatever.

And, now, Alan Krueger, the Princeton professor, former head of the Council of Economic Advisers for the White House - he came out with a study showing that almost half of the unworking men report that they took painkillers the previous day. So you add to that dispiriting tableau the idea that men who were unworking are not just sitting and watching, they're sitting and watching stoned. It's a very, very grim picture of, you know, kind of huge loss of human potential.

SIMON: You also talk about the fact that part and parcel of having the largest number of incarcerated people on Earth is the fact that we wind up having the largest number of former felons back in society and not part of the employment market, but also, in many ways, not part of civil society.

EBERSTADT: At the end of my work for this book, "Men Without Work: America's Invisible Crisis," I thought I'd do a due diligence chapter on what the work rates and employment profile of ex-cons looked like. And it turns out that American men and women who have been sentenced in our criminal justice system don't have information collected on them once they're no longer behind bars or out of correctional supervision. And according to some pretty good work by some demographers who've tried to reconstruct these trends 'cause they can't get the information from the U.S. government, about 20 million American men and women - obviously, overwhelmingly men - are adults with a felony in their in their background somewhere.

And we don't even collect the information on what their work chances and incomes and all the rest is like, but I kind of tried to reconstruct this from some non-government data. And it looks pretty grim, just the way you'd think. I think it's actually kind of scandalous that we don't bother to collect information on this enormous proportion of our society - maybe one in eight adult men. I mean, the group itself is probably almost twice as large as our unauthorized illegal alien population.

SIMON: You can scroll to the end of your article and sort of keep looking for you to say, and therefore, I think we should - but I didn't see that.

EBERSTADT: I don't know that I'm smart enough to tell you what the ten-point program is to fix all of this. What I hope to do with this article was to bring some attention to a huge problem that's causing a lot of suffering in our nation. And so people from all different sides of the public square must understand what's happening in our country. If we can see the same facts, then maybe we can develop a consensus to help turn this situation around.

SIMON: Nicholas Eberstadt - he is the author of "Men Without Work: America's Invisible Crisis" and a new article in the current issue of Commentary magazine, "Our Miserable 21St Century." Thanks so much for being with us.

EBERSTADT: Thank you for inviting me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.