Look, ma, no hands!

Economy "not dead yet," says treasury secretary, announcing next big stunt.

Published November 17, 2003 8:30PM (EST)

One of America's most intrepid illusionists, Secretary of the Treasury John W. Snow, will soon be moving into a clear plastic box suspended from a crane over the Brooklyn Bridge.

Echoing Snow's recent assessment of economic indicators, many see the event as "very encouraging."

Snow's previous stunts include burying a big economic picture deep underground, vowing to saw the deficit in half, and balancing an entire tax cut on a house of cards.

But Snow first endeared himself to his fans -- or, as they are better known, Snowblowers -- as a comedian. In an interview with Jim Lehrer on "NewsHour" March 11, the federal funnyman referred to those in the upper income brackets as "the so-called rich," quipped that federal deficits would be "modest," and brought down the house when he joked that the president's plan would "put millions of people back to work."

Now Snow is reinventing himself again, saying only, "You see, I've got some Blaine-in' to do."

Promoters of the guy-in-the-sky endurance test -- among them 8.8 million unemployed -- hope Snow will remain in the box until Nov. 4, 2004, surviving only on tap water and promises, or as it is known in Washington, "The Jobless Recovery Diet."

Rumors that some onlookers might be planning to throw eggs and hamburgers at the box once Snow begins his fast were quickly dispelled.

"On my income, I can't even throw food in a shopping cart, let alone at the treasury secretary," said longtime job seeker Fran Tickwith-Wurrey. She later became despondent on hearing that 16 school cafeteria workers in Minnesota had won big at Powerball.

"Oh, I don't begrudge them the millions," she explained. "Only, what's with them deciding they all want to keep their jobs? Can't they give somebody else a turn?"

Shortly afterward Tickwith-Wurrey was discovered face down in the family goldfish bowl, an event that Labor Secretary Elaine Chao cited as evidence that the number of workers feeling discouraged was on the decline.

Commerce Secretary Don Evans quickly offered a clarification, saying it proved that activity in domestic fisheries was on the increase.

Snow, meanwhile, is well known for his debt-defying feats of commentary. In October he grabbed headlines with one of his boldest stunts yet. Appearing without a leg to stand on, Snow pulled figures from thin air and announced that the economy would add 200,000 jobs a month for the next year.

Then as stunned economists looked on, Snow released his safety harness with one hand, his grip on reality with the other, and disappeared in a puff of smoke, only to reappear on the opposite end of the stage, backpedaling furiously over a high wire.

"You could've heard a pundit drop," said one audience member, recalling the suspense.

Finally, with only seconds to spare, Snow pulled a rabbit and about 126,000 jobs out of a hat.

The reviews were glowing. "Modest improvement!" raved MSN Money online. "A bit of an uptick!" cheered the Cincinnati Inquirer. "Business executives still cautious about expanding their work forces and building factories!" gushed the New York Times.

But was it too better-than-nothing to be true?

No. No, it wasn't.

Just days later, the Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that unemployment, which was last pegged at a dangerously high 6.1 percent, had in fact plummeted -- all the way to 6 percent.

This dramatic, dizzying one-tenth-of-one-percent freefall is expected to continue as temporary holiday hires kick in, or, as some in Snow's entourage are hoping, the 2 million long-term unemployed finally "take the hint."

In the meantime, Snow groupies are ecstatic over the new jobs, which some lucky winners describe as "just like my old job, only with far less money, fewer benefits, and no connection to my interests or experience."

"This isn't just some burp, this is a full-fledged spurt," said one analyst about the October employment figures. "That's practically a fart."

Curiously, few of the more than 8.8 million unemployed seem as elated by this minuscule and probably unsustainable improvement. Some wonder whether the fact that it would take 150,000 new jobs a month just to keep pace with population growth could have any bearing on their lack of excitement.


"You're always going to have some people who can't appreciate the thrill of a tepid change for the somewhat better," explained one source.

Others are simply locked in to the past, say federal revisionists. "Yes, this is the first time since the Great Depression that jobs have failed to fully recover within 31 months of the start of a recession. But you don't see that stopping John Snow from taking a flying leap of faith, now do you? The man's a daredevil."

Still others, among them the worst off of the long-term unemployed, seem preoccupied with whether Congress will renew an emergency compensation program due to expire just in time for Christmas. And while Congress mulls over whether 825,000 people suddenly becoming penniless is, as some have suggested, "a problem," Snow continues to show off his swashbuckling style.

Asked recently what would happen if Congress does not extend the federal program, Snow grabbed the bull by the horns and assured the American people that the White House hadn't yet decided. "That's still a decision for the president," Snow said firmly, a clear sign, say currency experts, that at least one or two bucks are still being passed. "You see? We've got economic stimulus happening all over the place. We just don't know where."

Now Snow is suiting up for his next feat of sheer nerve. How the economy will react once he is securely sealed in the plastic box is impossible to say. But this much is certain. Snow will emerge rested and ready to take full credit for anything positive that may have happened during his "absence in plain view." And should things go badly, he will have the consolation of being one of the few Americans who will still have somewhere to sleep at night.

By Joyce McGreevy

Joyce McGreevy is a writer in Portland, Ore.

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Business Great Recession U.s. Economy