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Looking beyond statistics for real jobless' story
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HSBC Holdings share prices went into a tailspin Monday afternoon. The shares of Europe's biggest lender plunged 24 percent that day.

The plummet was so sudden that Agnes Wu, a Hong Kong financial analyst, was in sobs while commenting on it.

Given the speed at which the value of nearly every kind of asset is shrinking, I thought that most people would become less sensitive to numbers.

Just look at the astronomical size of stimulus packages, bailouts, and the sum being wiped out or stolen.

The American government has already shoveled US$180 billion into American International Group, and will certainly give more.

The Asian Development Bank said Monday that the global crisis has wiped out US$50 trillion in the value of financial assets last year, including US$9.6 trillion of losses in developing Asia alone.

Rolling these trillions off our tongue makes us feel how rich we once were, and probably still are. One year ago many people still had difficulty counting the number of zeros in "billion."

When economists and officials talk glibly of millions, billions and trillions, are they alive to the human conditions these numbers represent, or misrepresent?

Numbers should not always be construed as causes for reassurance and celebration. It is time they be interpreted in a way that draws concerns, soul-searching, remorse, or tears.

Human Resources and Social Security Minister Yin Weimin, in depicting the "very grave" employment situation in China at a press conference on Tuesday, said 11 million migrant workers are still looking for jobs in cities.

The figure given earlier by an official of the Office of the Central Leading Group on Rural Work under the State Council is 20 million. Zhou Tianyong, a researcher from the Central Party School, puts the figure at 35 million.

Meanwhile, statistics from Guangdong Province suggest the situation there "far better" than expected.

One obvious explanation for this deviation is the virtual impossibility of characterizing in simple figures the status of migrant workers, to say nothing of their employment status.

Thus, China's routinely published unemployment statistics never take into account the migrant workers.

As any such statistics are highly dependent on methodology, the count reflects more the needs of the surveyor than those of the migrants.

One of the most remarkable things about Chinese migrants workers is their resilience and amazing adaptability in times of adversity.

Unlike some urbanites who would choose to survive on the dole than take the kind of jobs routinely assigned to migrants workers, jobless migrants would do anything to keep the wolf from the door.

As a result, how to describe a migrant's employment status hinges primarily on how you perceive and define a job.

For instance, a construction worker can be deemed overemployed, employed, underemployed, or virtually jobless, depending on whether he can be fully compensated for his work.

Even in the best of times, many migrant workers often have to fight for the wages due them.

That's why we should resist the temptation to take comfort in "glowing" statistics, which can be easily made available.

Most of us are hopelessly obsessed with figures.

In proving that a stock crash does not have a "symmetric" relationship with economic depression, 21st Century Business Herald columnist Tang Xuepeng wrote this week that a market crash occurs when the index plunges at least by 25 percent, while serious economic depression occurs when macroeconomic output contracts by at least 10 percent.

Citing US economist Robert Barro's findings, Tang suggests that if the Chinese government takes measures allowing for natural market adjustments, recovery might be expected in two or three years. If the government overreacts to stock crashes and adjustments of property prices by resorting excessively to Keynesian stimulus, these measure might seriously delay the recovery.

His conclusion is very important, but it does not have to be statistically demonstrated.

(Shanghai Daily March 12, 2009)

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