You do not fully understand an idea until you are able to explain it to the common person, or something to that effect was proposed by, I think, the geographer and anarchist Peter Kropotkin. In this spirit, I continue to try my hand at clarifying issues in public discourse by using some epidemiological thinking (previous posts in this vein 1, 2, 3, 4). In addition to the deeper or perhaps revised understanding, epidemiologists could build from such exercises a basis for a more public role as epidemiologists and from that eventually greater support for epidemiology and public health might emerge–perhaps. My latest contribution, on unemployment, follows. It turned out there is not much epidemiological thinking here except to notice the parallels with the contrast between public health efforts to shift the population distribution and the more clinical emphasis on treating high-risk individuals.
Ever spoken to someone who hustled and found a job in times of high unemployment and now claims that “anyone can get a job if they try hard enough”? There is usually more to this claim than their own employment; they probably know people who have not tried hard (which includes not accepting a wage cut) and who have not found a job. But does the go-getter claim make sense? A first look would say no: If there are a fixed number of jobs and this number is less than the working population, then for each go-getter getting a job another unemployed person misses out on one. But perhaps the claim is really that go-getters help create jobs that would not have been there. How would that play out?
Let us suppose there is a working population of N people, a base level of employment rate of e, and a fraction f of the population who are go-getters, that is who, when unemployed, can generate jobs for themselves that would not have existed otherwise. (For simplicity, assume the go-getters still fall prey to job loss at the same rate as other workers.) The algebra translates to: for each percentage point increase in the go-getter fraction, the total employment (i.e., base level plus additions from the go-getters) increases by 1-e percentage points. For high base unemployment, say 10%, the effect on total employment is to increase it .1 percentage points for each percentage point increase in the go-getter fraction. Now if everyone were a go-getter, total employment would always be 100%, but for realistic, smaller fractions of go-getting, the take-home message would not be to blame the non-go-getters but to focus on public policies to increase base-level employment.