How counting the unemployed started as a progressive reform

BY Zachary Karabell  March 6, 2014 at 2:30 PM EST
"A Monday Washing," New York," 1900, photocrom. Detroit Photographic Collection. Courtesy of National Gallery of Art Open Access.

Statistics we now use to measure the health of our economy grew out of a reform movement to assess the plight of the working class. “A Monday Washing,” New York, 1900. Courtesy of Detroit Photographic Collection/National Gallery.

Editor’s Note: In the moments before the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases February’s employment data on Friday morning, economists will tweet their predictions, CNBC’s on-screen clock will count down the seconds until 8:30 a.m. and newspapers across America will prepare to update their homepages with the percentage of unemployed people in America, and maybe, the number of jobs added to the economy.

But those statistics didn’t always move headlines; in fact, they didn’t exist until relatively recently in American history. Until the 19th century, Zachary Karabell writes, “the concept of unemployment was alien.” The author of “The Leading Indicators: A Short History of the Numbers That Rule Our World,” he objects to our national obsession with the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ unemployment data and is the subject of our Making Sense segment about that data, which you can watch below.

In an excerpt from his book, reprinted here by permission of Simon & Schuster, Karabell traces how employment data collection originated as a progressive antidote to economic inequality. But even the reformists who developed those statistics, Karabell notes, were wary of the “mania for statistics.”

Simone Pathe, Making Sense Editor


Ask a classical economist about unemployment, and the answer might surprise you: there is no such thing. In any society, there are always jobs that need doing by someone at some price. Therefore, theoretically, there is no unemployment; there is only an individual’s choice to work or not to work. Ask someone without gainful employment what he thinks of that answer, however, and the response is likely to be unprintable.

Until the nineteenth century, the concept of unemployment was alien. Most people didn’t earn a wage; they did not have “jobs.” They farmed, or traded, or served, or fought. Some were artisans or blacksmiths or stevedores, but most worked the land to nurse food out of stubborn soil. Factories were small, with a few dozen workers. There were mines here and there, and, of course, servants. But there was no framework of employment versus unemployment, only of want versus plenty, hard work versus idleness, good times versus bad.

That began to change in Western Europe with what we now call the industrial revolution. As steam power facilitated the growth of larger factories, and then railroads made possible the mass transportation of finished goods, jobs and wages became more central features of society. And as more people became employed and were paid a wage, more people also became unemployed. Still, it wasn’t until after the Civil War in the United States that anyone thought seriously to count who had jobs and who did not.

Well until the end of the nineteenth century, people without work were indicted as lazy and degenerate. Town after town had laws against “idleness” and “vagrancy,” and you could be arrested for not having a home or loitering on the streets looking for work. The idea that the government — any government — had a responsibility to help support those of able body who couldn’t support themselves was alien. That was charity, and charity was the province of churches or local associations and in no way the responsibility of government.

Yet those attitudes began to shift, slowly, in the 1870s and after. In part, the shift occurred because American society in the Gilded Age was plunged into tumult with the advent of industrialization and the influx of far more immigrants. Industrialization and the growth of factory work for wages was the spur. Similar changes took place in Europe at the same time, and not because of immigration. The belief that governments should take some action to address the issue of unemployment took hold over the course of several decades in both Europe and the United States, and went hand in hand with a growing consensus that society could be structured and governed according to the same scientific principles that had made the industrialization of
the nineteenth century possible.

The notion that a professionally run government could maximize a society’s output and stability through the application of scientific principles had widespread appeal, but almost every country lacked one key element: information. Yes, as we saw, governments had long been keeping track of trade and agriculture — the two traditional sources of wealth and power. But scientific management of society required data, and there, most societies and most governments were largely in the dark. As of the middle of the nineteenth century, almost every metric we now take as a given — from health statistics to economic data — simply did not exist.

In the United States, the birth of economic statistics was part of an overall movement toward social and political reform. The drive to create these statistics was fueled in part by a rising national suspicion that large companies, monopolies, railroads, and banks were reaping disproportionate rewards and thereby robbing the common man of his hard-earned gains. In Europe, a similar sensibility led to an efflorescence of Socialist movements, not to mention the birth of Communism. In the United States, it led to the birth of unions. Unions, in turn, believed that labor was being deprived of its rightful share of prosperity, but they couldn’t prove that. Hence the attempt to measure just what was going on in order to add weight to the widespread sense that many were suffering unnecessary hardship.

The men who were drawn to the obscure profession of measuring America were of two sorts: academics and technocrats or passionate reformers like Ethelbert Stewart. The late nineteenth century was rife with the creation of countless associations, from academic guilds such as the American Political Science Association (1903) and the American Economic Association (1885), to professional interest groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers, founded in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1895 by a group of businessmen concerned about the deep economic panics that regularly dented American progress at least once a decade. The American Statistical Association was founded before them all, in Boston in 1839. But without the tools provided by these other, later groups, its work had minimal impact on defining the contours of the modern economy.

Without the passionate reformers, however, statistics and economics may have stayed on the fringes of society, or in the background along with ornithology and mountaineering. What animated Stewart was anger at how hard most Americans worked, how little they earned, and how appalling labor conditions were. By developing tools to measure precisely how bad and precisely how unsafe and exactly how tenuous the plight of the workingman was, Stewart believed that conditions could be changed, laws enacted, protections created.

As long as the world remained unmeasured, however, anecdotes could always be trumped by anecdotes, and those with power and money could always argue that things were better than what a few malcontents claimed.

Stewart worked for the state of Illinois until the sleepy Federal Bureau of Labor recruited him in 1897. That agency, founded in 1884 and underfunded, had sprang out of the wave of disruptive and violent strikes that pockmarked industrial America. Its mandate was to address the perilous state of labor relations and act both as an advocate for workers and a mediator with owners. Along with so many institutions, its birth was part of what we now call the Progressive movement, which seized much of American society toward the end of the nineteenth century, and Stewart was in that respect very much a man of his time.

Today we pay little attention to the countless public servants who staff numerous agencies; the government has become a bureaucracy with a history. But at the turn of the twentieth century, these agencies were all new, and many were yet to be created. With the passage of the Pendleton Civil Service Act in 1883, civil service became a profession rather than a reward for political support, and with the spirit of reform on the rise, more people were drawn to government as an agent of positive change. Stewart embodied that spirit, and he went about his work with pride and urgency. He spent years in assorted roles ranging from manager to mediator until he was recruited to be the second in command to the head of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Royal Meeker, in 1913.

The creation of the Bureau of Labor Statistics had followed the initiatives of several states. The ever-progressive Massachusetts had led the way in 1869 and was the first state to create a labor department focused on collecting and assembling information about employment and working conditions. A dozen other states followed suit over the next twenty years. In all cases, the impetus was the same: labor unions pushed for official collection of information that would support their contention that conditions were poor, wages insufficient, safety nonexistent, and companies indifferent. The federal government was then spurred, somewhat reluctantly, to action when President Chester Alan Arthur, an accidental president if there ever was one, signed into law the creation of the Federal Bureau of Labor, along with its statistics office, in 1884. In 1913, it became part of the cabinet as the Department of Labor.

By the time Stewart arrived, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) had been in existence for nearly thirty years, but in terms of measuring employment, it could just as well not have existed. Yes, its staff was imbued with a sense of noble purpose. Stewart was not alone in his zeal. As part of a general trend to celebrate efforts to define and measure reality, many of the men who worked for the agency viewed their profession as an enlightened pursuit and as central to making the world a better place. They believed that better numbers would ameliorate diseases, increase the food supply, enrich the world, and empower the nation. Said Carroll Wright, the first BLS commissioner, “Statistics are the fitting and never-changing symbols . . . to tell the story of our present state.” Wright himself was a former head of the American Statistical Association and a forceful advocate for the role that better statistics could play in crafting a stronger country. He spent his life preaching the gospel of statistics as key to good government and better labor relations, and as tools that would allow governments and businesses to design the right policies and make it possible for people to learn over time by giving them the means to compare their own present to the past.

Stewart, however, was less of an intellectual and more of a pugilist. He was idealistic about the capacity for change, but he was also an ornery pragmatist. Hence he saw numbers and data as weapons in the fight against ignorance and foolishness. He saw facts as a potent force, impossible to refute provided they were supported. “So long as the Bureau of Labor Statistics sticks strictly to the question of facts, then all I have to say . . . is that anybody who dislikes the facts is in hard luck!”

Stewart also zealously defended his agency’s turf, what little there was. When a congressional committee demanded that he hand over data on individual automobile manufacturers’ labor patterns, he refused on the grounds of confidentiality. When the committee chair threatened him with a subpoena, he flatly refused. “You do,” he said, “and I’ll burn them first.” The matter was quickly dropped.

Sardonic and pithy, Stewart was very much what Mark Twain would have been had Twain been a statistician. He had little truck with homilies and ignorance, and saw in statistics a way to force society to deal with pressing issues of justice, fairness, and decency. “The working people of the United States,” he declared, “are entitled to know what the changing industrial conditions are … and the nature of and extent of the occupational readjustment which is necessary to meet them without loss of earning power.” As an advocate for a minimum wage law long before that was fashionable, Stewart saw the issue as one of simple social utility: unless people had sufficient means to meet their needs, their lives would be diminished, as would the strength of the country.

Even so, he was skeptical of too much reliance on science and math. Statistics were a guide and could provide a map, but he was wary of the “mania for statistics” that accompanied the early–twentieth century mantra of rigorous measurement. The belief that society could be treated as a machine and that by understanding the inputs you could determine outcomes had limits. “The things that make human life human do not lend themselves readily to the statistical method,” he wrote. Decades later, as we shall see, similar sentiments would be expressed more poetically by Robert Kennedy.

Stewart was hardly alone in his progressive beliefs. In fact, many of the individuals who worked for the bureau strove for social justice. Royal Meeker, the BLS commissioner before Stewart, and an advocate for workmen’s compensation for accidents, remarked, “I do not happen to be a Socialist, but if it is socialism to provide adequate protection to the lives, health, and well-being of our working population, then let us have more of the same.” These sentiments were inseparable from the impulse to define and delineate what had until then been an amorphous issue: just who was and was not employed and why.

Excerpted from “THE LEADING INDICATORS: A Short History of the Numbers That Rule Our World,” by Zachary Karabell. Copyright © 2014 by Zachary Karabell. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All Rights Reserved.