GOP leaders in Congress who can’t stop talking about family values are proposing an array of deep cuts to food stamps, child tax credits, healthcare for the poor, and even block grants that help states with daycare and adoption assistance. Left untouched are military spending that has ballooned over the last decade and tax breaks for the richest Americans. This isn’t courageous or pragmatic. It’s fiscally irresponsible and morally wrong.
We should not pit national security against economic security. An effective military and a responsive government that doesn’t turn its back on vulnerable families are both achievable if we move beyond false choices. The working poor struggling in minimum-wage jobs, the elderly, and a squeezed middle class did not cause our deficits. They should not be asked to bear the greatest burden.
As economist Paul Krugman points out in the first chapter of his new book, economics is not just about money. There’s a human side to it as well. Providing those who want to work, and can’t find a job, with a job – the dignity of work – would go a long way to healing our long-term economic problems. How Bad Things Are.
Economists, the old line goes, know the price of everything and the value of nothing. And you know what? There’s a lot of truth to that accusation: since economists mainly study the circulation of money and the production and consumption of stuff, they have an inherent bias toward assuming that money and stuff are what matter. Still, there is a field of economic research that focuses on how self-reported measures of well-being, such as happiness or “life satisfaction,” are related to other aspects of life. Yes, it’s known as “happiness research”–Ben Bernanke even gave a speech about it in 2010, titled “The Economics of Happiness.” And this research tells us something very important about the mess we’re in.
Sure enough, happiness research tells us that money isn’t all that important once you get to the point of being able to afford the necessities of life. The payoff to being richer isn’t literally zero–citizens of rich countries are, on average, somewhat more satisfied with their lives than citizens of less well-off nations. Also, being richer or poorer than the people you compare yourself with is a fairly big deal, which is why extreme inequality can have such a corrosive effect on society. But when all is said and done, money is less important than crude materialists–and many economists–would like to believe.
That’s not to say, however, that economic affairs are unimportant in the true scale of things. For there’s one economics-driven thing that matters enormously to human well-being: having a job. People who want to work but can’t find work suffer greatly, not just from the loss of income but from a diminished sense of self-worth. And that’s a major reason why mass unemployment–which has now been going on in America for four years–is such a tragedy.
How severe is the problem of unemployment? That question calls for a bit of discussion.
Clearly, what we’re interested in is involuntary unemployment. People who aren’t working because they have chosen not to work, or at least not to work in the market economy–retirees who are glad to be retired, or those who have decided to be full-time housewives or househusbands–don’t count. Neither do the disabled, whose inability to work is unfortunate, but not driven by economic issues.
Now, there have always been people claiming that there’s no such thing as involuntary unemployment, that anyone can find a job if he or she is really willing to work and isn’t too finicky about wages or working conditions. There’s Sharron Angle, the Republican candidate for the Senate, who declared in 2010 that the unemployed were “spoiled,” choosing to live off unemployment benefits instead of taking jobs. There are the people at the Chicago Board of Trade who, in October 2011, mocked anti-inequality demonstrators by showering them with copies of McDonald’s job application forms. And there are economists like the University of Chicago’s Casey Mulligan, who has written multiple articles for the New York Times website insisting that the sharp drop in employment after the 2008 financial crisis reflected not a lack of employment opportunities but diminished willingness to work.
The classic answer to such people comes from a passage near the beginning of the novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (best known for the 1948 film adaptation starring Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston): “Anyone who is willing to work and is serious about it will certainly find a job. Only you must not go to the man who tells you this, for he has no job to offer and doesn’t know anyone who knows of a vacancy. This is exactly the reason why he gives you such generous advice, out of brotherly love, and to demonstrate how little he knows the world.”
Quite. Also, about those McDonald’s applications: in April 2011, as it happens, McDonald’s did announce 50,000 new job openings. Roughly a million people applied.
If you have any familiarity with the world, in short, you know that involuntary unemployment is very real. And it’s currently a very big deal.
How bad is the problem of involuntary unemployment, and how much worse has it become?
The U.S. unemployment measure you usually hear quoted in the news is based on a survey in which adults are asked whether they are either working or actively seeking work. Those who are seeking work but don’t have jobs are considered unemployed. In December 2011 that amounted to more than 13 million Americans, up from 6.8 million in 2007.
If you think about it, however, this standard definition of unemployment misses a lot of distress. What about people who want to work, but aren’t actively searching either because there are no jobs to be had, or because they’ve grown discouraged by fruitless searching? What about those who want full-time work, but have only been able to find part-time jobs? Well, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tries to capture these unfortunates in a broader measure of unemployment, known as U6; it says that by this broader measure there are about 24 million unemployed Americans–about 15 percent of the workforce–roughly double the number before the crisis.
Yet even this measure fails to capture the extent of the pain. In modern America most families contain two working spouses; such families suffer, both financially and psychologically, if either spouse is unemployed. There are workers who used to make ends meet with a second job, now down to an inadequate one, or who counted on overtime pay that no longer arrives. There are independent businesspeople who have seen their income shrivel. There are skilled workers, accustomed to holding down good jobs, who have been forced to accept work that uses none of their skills. And on and on.
There is no official estimate of the number of Americans caught up in this sort of penumbra of formal unemployment. But in a June 2011 poll of likely voters–a group probably in better shape than the population as a whole–the polling group Democracy Corps found that a third of Americans had either themselves suffered from job loss or had a family member lose a job, and that another third knew someone who had lost a job. Moreover, almost 40 percent of families had suffered from reduced hours, wages, or benefits.
The pain, then, is very widespread. But that’s not the whole story: for millions, the damage from the bad economy runs very deep.
The GOP wants to cut things like food stamps, Medicaid and Meals on Wheels, instead of the bloated defense budget, or by taxing the wealthy more. House To Vote On GOP Bill Framed As Guns Vs. Butter.
Republicans who control the House want to block some $55 billion worth of automatic cuts to the Pentagon budget next year. Instead, they want to cut funding for social programs such as food stamps, Medicaid and Meals on Wheels. It’s a choice that has been framed as guns versus butter, and this time, guns are expected to win.
Texas Democrat Lloyd Doggett says there would be less money for vaccinations, prenatal care and quality nursing homes for seniors.
“It’s shifting all the cost onto the most vulnerable people that don’t have a strong enough lobbyist to stand up for themselves, and I think it is a terrible wrong,” Doggett says.
Republicans on the Budget Committee approved the cuts to social programs, setting up Thursday’s vote in the full House. Texas Rep. Bill Flores defended the cuts in the name of fiscal responsibility.
“We talk about values. Deficit spending is not a value, ladies and gentlemen. Deficit spending is what’s going to bankrupt the future for the children that you say you care so much about,” Flores says.
But as Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen points out, Thursday’s vote isn’t really about the size of the deficit. It’s just about who bears the cost of government spending cuts: the military or the needy.
“The issue is not whether we should implement a plan to reduce the deficit in a steady, credible and predictable way,” Van Hollen says. “We should. The issue is how should we do it?”
The reality is that the best way to deal with the long-term deficit is to put people back to work. And the best way to put people back to work is by reversing austerity, raising taxes on the wealthy, and rebuilding our dilapidated infrastructure. The GOP in 2010 ran on jobs, jobs, jobs…remember?!