We’ve complained more times than we would like to recall about the stilted, often leaden way in which most business stories are written. For whatever reason, there just seems to be something about the form that prevents many reporters from injecting any life or levity into their accounts.
So imagine our surprise to find in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times a business column that was actually fun to read. And even more unexpectedly, it was written by a think tank economist, Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute.
In an op-ed written like a noir-ish Dashiell Hammett story, Bernstein describes how, after a long day struggling with two federal economic reports that don’t seem to add up, he heads to the local bar to try and find some solace.
One of the reports, he notes, shows that first quarter GDP rose 4.8 percent, while the second report, a study of compensation, shows that real wages of American workers are falling, or are remaining stagnant. The question he can’t square between the two is, “why the economy’s racing ahead but leaving working stiffs behind.”
At the bar, he meets a woman with “a neckline as low as the Nasdaq in ‘01, curves like sine waves and a dress tighter than the global oil supply. She had my attention even before she pulled out two reports I’d seen that very morning.”
She asks him how to interpret the reports, saying that her bosses in the Republican National Committee “think it’s great when wage growth decelerates because with no inflationary pressure from labor costs, it means the Fed can take a powder on rate increases.”
Bernstein complains that “Guys like me don’t like it when things line up” the way they did in recent times. Namely, each quarter, “we seemed to be getting great news on top-line statistics — GDP, productivity, profits — yet the typical workers’ real earnings were down 2 percent over the recovery.”
He decides to confront the Republican staffer, accusing her bosses of ignoring “the structural factors driving the productivity/wage gap: the declining unions, low minimum wage, the profit squeeze, slack job creation and, most of all, the way globalization is sapping the bargaining clout of the American worker, blue and white collar alike.” Sure enough, she showed her true colors, telling him that she in fact doesn’t care, and that “‘Any intervention would just cuff the invisible hand, doing more harm than good.’ She was Milton Friedman with the body of Scarlett Johansson.”
Bernstein concludes by saying that the love affair with rising GDP numbers, and the failure to note the stagnant wages of average workers, “are a microcosm of everything that’s right and wrong with this economy.”
He might be right, but either way his little narrative was one of the more readable (or at least fun) analyses of the problem we’ve seen. We’re not calling for business writers to unleash a flood of jokey articles in an effort to better explain complicated economic reports to their readers, but Bernstein’s op-ed defiantly breathed some welcome fresh air on a tedious — but important — subject.