Unemployment Numbers: The Long View

The December U.S. jobs report offered little to cheer about. The country counted 155,000 new non-farm jobs in the last month of 2012, a rate of growth that echoed the average monthly job gain for the last year (about 153,000). Much of the early coverage was tinged with a sense of relief. The fiscal cliff noise did not deter hiring. The post-Sandy devastation in New York and New Jersey did not drag down the national numbers. The economy was finally showing “steady” growth.

But one step back from the monthly scoreboard-watching, the picture is not nearly as reassuring.

Measured against the trajectory of all other postwar recessions (see graphic below), the current downturn is deeper and longer—by an impressive margin—than any that preceded it. Before 1980, the job market never took longer than two years to return to its pre-recession levels. The recession of 1981 and 1990 pushed this out into the thirty month range. It took four years to struggle back to the surface after the 2001 recession. The current recession is over five years old and counting. If we continue to add jobs at the 2012 monthly rate, we will be underwater for about twenty-six more months.

But even this is not the best measure. Over the course of the recession, the potential labor force has grown as new workers have graduated college or high school, or immigrated to the United States. Our jobs deficit is equal to the number of jobs lost since the recession began plus the number of jobs we should have been adding to keep pace with the growth of the working-age population. That number, by the ongoing calculation of the Economic Policy Institute, is about 9 million. At current growth rates, it will take eight years to clear that deficit.

Finally, the raw jobs numbers are silent as to the quality of the jobs being added. We continue to lose public sector jobs, and while private sector wages inched up in December, that increase still lagged behind the inflation rate. “Recovery” job growth is concentrated in sectors marked by low wages and meager job-based benefits. The job numbers may be “steady,” but the recession is still very much with us. The jobs deficit is substantial. And the goods jobs deficit is even worse.

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.