What You Should Think About Unemployment

June 6, 2011

“Lost time is never found again.”

–Benjamin Franklin

The United States of America is a capitalist country.  Like the uncritical institutionalization of any other -ism, this is unfortunate.  Most of our citizens are neither informed nor passionate enough about economics to actually qualify as ideologues.  Among the rest, it could hardly be said that all of us are capitalists.  Nonetheless, it is the policy of this nation to treat free markets like magical sacrosanct entities.  To tamper with them, however vital and useful this tampering may be, is to commit a serious political transgression.  In spite of frequent invective characterizing him as a socialist, even the sitting President has given earnest voice to the first statement in this paragraph.

As a result, our policies reflect the priorities of capitalists.  Even the slightest of additional business regulation, like a hiatus on deepwater drilling in the immediate aftermath of a major ecological disaster, is often characterized as “the heavy hand of government preventing job growth.”  Never mind the important work to be done in fisheries and the loss of tourism dollars.  The balancing of interests, even legitimate economic interests, is not to be considered when it is possible to make the immediate leap from “mean ol’ guv’m’nt regulated an industry” to “we’re losing jobs!”  A more sensible approach would promote balancing economic interests in those situations where the advance of one impedes the growth of another.  Heck, a more sensible approach would even promote balancing non-economic interests like environmental quality and workplace safety with economic interests.

Alas, a more sensible approach means an approach in which there is less nonsense.  Since nonsense is essential to the exploitation of fears and hatreds that motivate irrational voting behavior, the party out of power will often see and act on opportunities to profit from the popularization of nonsense.  So it is with the nation’s mad and futile dash toward full employment.  Almost every modern American President has echoed the sentiment that ideal conditions would see to it that every adult who wants a job will have a job.  Precious few of them have been astute enough to expand on that sentiment with the observation that not every job is suited to every worker, or vice versa.

Yet this is a crucial observation to getting anywhere near and ideal economy.  Were every unemployed American to take the first position available to him or her, our collective output would be devastated by a combination of underemployment (overqualified people unhappily toiling away at less valuable work than they might otherwise perform) and overemployment (people unhappily enduring jobs so demanding that an inappropriate work-life balance can have serious long term medical consequences.)  One of the constructive functions of unemployment is to give growing employers and active job seekers time enough to get past the first possible employment situation and into a truly suitable working relationship.

Of course, there is much more to it than that.  Eager to achieve short term economic growth while facing increasingly absurd demands from Newt Gingrich’s majority in Congress, President Bill Clinton agreed to a host of draconian measures sheltered under the umbrella term “welfare reform.”  Though states have tailored some of these reforms in different ways, one common outcome of this mid-90s “reform” was a phenomenon known as “workfare.”  The idea is that the government subsidizes the pay of workers hired off welfare rosters so that businesses have more access to cheap labor and the chronically unemployed have more opportunities for “the dignity of work.”  Almost none of these jobs are actually dignified.

Worse yet, it is commonplace for these workfare positions to involve compulsory labor by single parents who are then compensated little more than the cost of obtaining child care for the span of time that they must be on the job.  His personal life is not the only way in which the former Speaker of the House utterly failed to live up to his many loud public commitments to family values.  However much he may have contempt for single parent households, surely taking those single parents out of the home and demanding the best of their energies be put into toil alongside minimum wage employees does no service to their innocent children.  Workfare as a policy may have stimulated a measure of short term growth, but it has also generated developmental and educational problems sure to be a long term negative force working against the cause of sustainable American prosperity.

It is bad enough that, since the start of Ronald Reagan’s Presidency, all real economic growth in the United States has been concentrated in the hands of the most wealthy 20% of our citizens.  Making matters worse is the fact that, during this same time, workers have been caught in the vice-like grip of our hypercompetitive economy.  Longer hours, fewer benefits, and increasingly inhumane conduct by management at businesses both large and small — all of it does much to increase the quotient of misery in this nation.  Economists look only to metrics like the unemployment rate and the consumer price index when attempting to gauge human misery.  They wear professional blinders that prevent them from a deeper understanding of just how much suffering would persist even if unemployment and inflation were to drop back to historic lows.

At this same time, we have conservative political voices calling for measures like a higher retirement age.  Few of them seem to recognize the antagonistic relationship between the quest for lower unemployment and the push for a higher retirement age.  A robust national pension plan or a shorter standard work week might offend some ideologues’ worship of almighty capitalism; but these measures would be relatively painless, even downright joyful, methods of decreasing unemployment.  Enhancements to retirement security policy would make it easier for elderly workers to retire in dignity, which in turn would make it easier for young people to launch their careers by landing suitable jobs right out of school.  Likewise, mandating that large enterprises support ample vacation time and/or a shorter work week would mean that business units would require slightly larger workforces to maintain the same levels of productivity.  This too would be an uplifting way to drive down unemployment figures.

For much of the life of this nation, the American people were influenced by capitalism without falling victim to fundamentalist thinking in the area of market economics.  To the extent that our productive lives actually are influenced by economic thought, that fundamentalist perspective — that worship of the -ism — has festered into a national sickness.  It leaves us unable to even consider a broad range of sensible responses to identified problems.  It leaves us unable to recognize serious problems born of our own extremism.  It is a weakness unworthy of a great people.  Are we, the people of the United States of America, greater than capitalism?  I believe that we are.   Yet I also fear we who embrace this belief are grossly and chronically underrepresented in the halls of power.

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