Each November and December, the presence of Christmas-specific decorations and signs in the malls and other shopping venues in this part of the country seems to diminish just a bit. It’s some consolation that at least we’re not to the point where we call the Christmas tree a “Unity tree,” which incredibly has been the case in Pittsburgh for a while.
Less than benign neglect of Christmas describes the way the supposedly open-minded and progressive establishment press covers the season’s retail trade. I’ll have more on that later, but let’s first look at how the Christmas shopping season is going, and at its impact on jobs and the economy.
The relatively good news is that sales appear to be on track to barely trail last year. A short time ago the predictions were much worse. The problem is that time after time after time, the headlines tell us that retailers haven’t done a lot of seasonal hiring. I know for a fact that many of the larger merchants in our area are trying to slide by with their existing staff, apparently willing to severely test the patience of customers needing personal assistance or merely trying to get through the checkout lines.
This retailer hiring holdback was clear in the job-related numbers that came out of the Bureau of Labor Statistics last month — but not in the widely published figures of 10% unemployment (down from 10.2%) and 11,000 jobs lost. The latter figure was especially skewed by the nature of the bureau’s seasonal adjustment calculation and the high degree of fantasy contained in its “birth/death” model.
In November, what in fact happened on the ground (i.e., in the not seasonally adjusted numbers) is that employers added an estimated 80,000 net jobs. But part of that number included 30,000 net birth/death positions, representing the supposed difference between jobs added by newly born and unseen businesses and those lost at disappearing and invisibly contracting ones. Excluding November 2008’s outlier of 610,000 total jobs actually lost, which was largely a reflection of the sudden bailout-induced loss of confidence in the financial system and a reaction to Barack Obama’s electoral victory, November 2009’s all-inclusive on-the-ground job jump was a full quarter million less than the November 2003-2007 average. If retailers were doing a lot of seasonal hiring this year, that result would have been very different. It’s by no means certain that stores will even be able to keep all of their full-time staff when 2010 rolls around.
As to the birth/death model, the high likelihood that it is overstating employment is really not the BLS’s fault. The model recognizes that in a typical downturn and recovery, many laid-off and terminated workers take the opportunity to start up new enterprises below the radar and end up taking on new people. They tend to do that in greater numbers than smaller, invisible firms and self-employed individuals give up their efforts.
But this is no typical downturn; nor is it a typical recovery. Instead, it’s the POR (Pelosi-Obama-Reid) economy. Thanks to impending tax increases, the possibility of cap and trade, the apparent likelihood that statist health care will be with us shortly, and many other similar factors, uncertainty dominates. Few businesses are brave enough to invest, expand, or even temporarily take on more people. The BLS should be forgiven for not incorporating assumptions about what might happen if a political party bound and determined to take down the economy took over the reins of power into its birth/death model. Before the summer of 2008, who thought it would ever happen?