Morton J. Marcus is an economist formerly with the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University. His column appears in Indiana newspapers. His column appears in Indiana newspapers
Several readers contend this column expresses negativism about Indiana. They tell me to find something good to say about the state. That’s easy: Indiana’s borders have been Sanforized; they show no signs of shrinking.
A different group of complaining readers chide me for using too many numbers. Somehow these readers never learned numbers represent people and their activities, real people.
TV news (and too many newspaper articles) feature storybook people whose lives are supposed to make it possible for us to understand complex problems. This approach assumes we can’t grasp the human context without individuals as stand-ins for vast numbers of diverse people.
Governments do a fine job spinning the news using carefully selected facts. One would believe Indiana is carpeted with blue and yellow spring flowers, fortuitously the state colors. Lately, however, the state has been covered with potholes.
Let’s talk about jobs. Indiana, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, added nearly 31,000 jobs in 2017, a 1.2 percent increase. That fact alone seems impressive. But nationally the growth rate was 1.8 percent.
Seems like a small difference, 1.2 vs 1.8 percent. Yet, if Indiana added jobs at the national rate, it would have meant an additional 17,000 Hoosier jobs in 2017.
OK, Indiana didn’t match the national average rate of job growth in 2017, but we kept hearing what a good year 2017 was. And it was a good year, if you compare it to a longer period of time.
Over the past ten years, 2007 to 2017, a decade that includes a major recession and a long period of growth, Indiana added 118,000 jobs, an average annual growth rate of 0.5 percent. That’s why 2017, with a job growth rate of 1.2 percent, looked so good. Or did it?
In 2017, Indiana’s rate of job growth, and that of the U.S., was the lowest since 2010 as we came out of the recession. Got it? 2017 was a strong year for job growth, if your comparison includes the recession. But 2017 was a weak year, if you look at only the recovery period starting in 2010.
Every interpretation of a number describing human activity depends on the comparison of that number with another.
This simple reality drives some readers wild. It’s all too much. The complexity of life overwhelms these folks. They seek unambiguous declarations of good or bad, better or worse.
In elementary school, I was the tallest student in my class. In junior high, I was second tallest. In high school, I could see over the heads of almost everyone standing in a New York subway car.
Then I moved to Chicago. I didn’t shrink, but now there were many subway riders tall than I. By moving, I became a person of average height. Your status depends on who’s standing next to you.