‘Like a patient etherized upon a table’

If we think of the economy as an actual body, we can start to appreciate how difficult it is to assess its over-all state of health – and how misleading to isolate one indicator.

So is blood flowing through the arteries and veins robustly, like money and credit nourishing the organs and limbs, enabling them to function?

The brain, is it able to manage the whole system, detecting vital signals and sending out instructions that keep the whole effective and in balance?

Is there employment for the limbs, activities to keep the arms and legs busy doing what they need to do to stay in shape?

I don’t want to stretch the analogy too far because it breaks down quickly, but perhaps not before it helps us become aware of how multi-faceted and complex real health is — and real economies.

So while the Dow once again has surged above 10,000, which is being taken as a sign of economic health, here is another diagnostic observation from Bob Herbert in The New York Times:  “What you’re not hearing from the politicians and the talking heads is that the joblessness and underemployment in America’s low-income households rival their heights in the Great Depression of the 1930s — and in some instances are worse.”

Herbert cites a study complied by The Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University that divided American households into 10 groups based on annual household income. “The highest group, with household incomes of $150,000 or more, had an unemployment rate . . . of 3.2 percent. The next highest . . . an unemployment rate of 4 percent.

“Contrast those figures with the unemployment rate of the lowest group, which had annual household incomes of $12,499 or less. The unemployment rate of that group during the fourth quarter of last year was a staggering 30.8 percent. That’s more than five points higher than the overall jobless rate at the height of the Depression.  The next lowest group, with incomes of $12,500 to $20,000, had an unemployment rate of 19.1 percent.”  (See, “The Worst of the Pain.”)

So what are the vital signs that count?  Chances are that those in the highest groups are reassured that the Dow is up.  Credit is flowing through their veins just fine.  On the other hand, the level of the Dow would be largely irrelevant to those in the lowest groups, comatose and inactive.

Put that way, it’s obvious.  But when we read in the papers or hear on the news that the Dow’s breaking 10,000 is a sign of the “economy’s recovery,” we might well be wise to question the implicit assumption that we have a single economy, at least one that can be measured so definitively.

What we don’t know we know is how easily our language shapes the world we see – and how casually it excludes much of what we might not want to think about.