Friday, March 5, 2010
It was a race against time, as Christopher Columbus knew all too well. After more than a month at sea, his crew was getting cantankerous, and he was not sure how much longer they would follow him through uncharted waters. He knew the earth was round. What he didn't know was how big around. What if he had miscalculated? Perhaps this voyage to the Orient would take longer, a lot longer, than what he had figured.
A possible mutiny was not his only worry. Embedded in the wooden hulls of his three vessels were shipworms, steadily munching away on the cellulose keeping the crew afloat. Known as "termites of the sea," shipworms are not actually worms, but bivalve mollusks. In their larval stage, they invade submerged wood and, fitted with shell "bits" at their front ends, start drilling. After a while they grow to 2-3 feet long, and the infested wood takes on the appearance of Swiss cheese (above). Not a comfortable thought when you're a thousand miles or more from your home port.
Columbus's fleet was now due for some scheduled maintenance. As often as you might change the oil in your car's engine, sailors back then had to haul their vessel out of the water and refresh the pitch applied to the hull to deter the teredos. Any damage would have to be caulked before setting sail once more. Columbus was in dire need of a pit stop, but there was no beach around. That's when he was approached by a government economist.
"What are you doing here?" Columbus demanded.
"I was appointed by His and Her Majesties to count the gold that you said you would find, remember? Besides, I have some good news. The teredos have stopped eating our ships. What do you say we break out a cask of vino?"
Known for his ill temper, Columbus exploded.
"Have you got rocks in your cabeza? So what if the worms have stopped! We're still taking on water through the holes they already made!"
Columbus needed dry land, not a dimwitted sycophant. He was of half a mind to heave the economist overboard to feed the sharks, but sent him off to clean the heads instead.
Over 500 years later, optimistic economists still find favor in royal courts. They make six figures and primp for CNBC. They stand behind presidents and prime ministers at important press conferences and fly to places like Davos, Switzerland, to hang with their buds. They find jobs for their girlfriends at the World Bank. They rock and they roll.
Here in the U.S. they blithely announce that the recession is over. Any month now, they say, we will stop losing jobs. That's when things will be all better. But stopping the infestation is not the same as fixing the problem. Holding at zero net new jobs means that we are still taking on water. We need to repair the damage by adding 12 million jobs.
Today's news from the Bureau of Labor Statistics: the teredos are still chewing. According to the Establishment Survey, 36,000 jobs were lost in February. And what do all those unemployed whose benefits are running out think? That maybe it's time to turn the ship around.