November 13th, 2009
12:02 PM ET

Alice in unemployment land

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/LIVING/11/04/job.search.tips.cb/story.jpg width=300 height=169]

Tom Foreman | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

So many different numbers are being tossed about on the subject of unemployment; if you spend even a day trying to sort them out you can wind up feeling like Alice in Wonderland; only this time she’s tumbled down into an unemployment line where nothing makes sense.

Here is the White House crew talking about all the jobs that they’ve “created or saved” with the stimulus. The economy is getting better, but joblessness is getting worse. Initial benefits claims are up, then they are down. The Labor Department is issuing a river of reports on jobs lost, gained, outsourced, insourced, retro-fitted, repainted, fertilized, pruned, poached in a white wine sauce, you name it. Cue the Mad Hatter. It’s no wonder whacky tea parties are breaking out across the land.

Take it easy. Having traveled at great peril through the looking glass into the surreal land of economists, I have emerged with the grail; the only number you really need to know.

16 million. Actually it’s a little under that, but let’s not quibble. That’s how many Americans are looking for work. Maybe a few less at this very moment. I met some guys in Albany who usually go fishing over the weekend, but you can bet even they will be back in the hunt for work on Monday, so my point stands.

16 million. If we asked them all to join hands and stand along the borders, (hey, what else do they have to do?) they could easily encircle the entire Lower 48 states. We’d probably even have enough left over to put them two deep on the Mexican line, and end that whole debate about building a wall. Actually, this might be a good idea overall; a visual representation of our troubles. We could let them charge for access to the beaches. Or we could pay all of them from the stimulus money! Kind of like publicly funded performance art. I mean, they need the jobs anyway, right?

16 million. It’s one of those whopping numbers that’s hard to get your head around. But in a relative sense, it is a good tool for keeping track of our job troubles. If that number gets smaller, that’s good. And if it gets bigger, well, even the Cheshire Cat won’t be grinning anymore.

Follow Tom on Twitter @tomforemancnn.

Filed under: Opinion • President Barack Obama • Raw Politics • Tom Foreman • Unemployment
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