A Conservative Disdain for the Unemployed

House Speaker John Boehner says that unemployed Americans are pretty clearly malingerers, bums on welfare who have decided that they don’t feel like working: “This idea that has been born, maybe out of the economy over the last couple years, that, you know, ‘I really don’t have to work; I don’t really want to do this. I think I’d rather just sit around.’ This is a very sick idea for our country,” Mr. Boehner said in comments made after a speech at the American Enterprise Institute this month.

I could point to the overwhelming economic evidence that nothing like this is happening – after all, if what we were seeing was a mass withdrawal of labor supply, we should be seeing wages for those still willing to work taking off. I could also point to zero interest rates and low inflation as evidence that we’re living in a demand-constrained economy. I could ask how, exactly, Mr. Boehner believes that increased willingness to work would conjure more jobs into existence.

But what really gets me here is the fact that people like Mr. Boehner are so obviously disconnected from the lived experience of ordinary workers. I mean, I live a pretty rarefied existence, with job security and a nice income and a generally upscale social set – but even so, I know a fair number of people who have spent months or years in desperate search of jobs that still aren’t there. How cut off (or oblivious) can someone be who thinks that the problem here is just that these people don’t want to work?

When I see stuff like this, I always think of the opening of B. Traven’s book The Treasure of the Sierra Madre: “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.”

Return of the Bums on Welfare

It has long seemed to me that the issue of unemployment benefits is where the debate over economic policy in a depression reaches its purest essence. If you’re on the right, you believe – you more or less have to believe – that unemployment benefits hurt job creation, because you’re “paying people not to work.”

To admit that depression conditions are different – that the economy is suffering from an overall lack of demand and that putting money into the pockets of people who are likely to spend it would increase employment – would mean admitting that the free market sometimes fails badly. And, of course, disdain for the unemployed helps a lot if you want to oppose any kind of aid for the unfortunate.

But there’s something remarkable about seeing these claims made now – because even if you believe that expanded unemployment benefits were somehow a cause rather than an effect of the economic crisis, those expanded benefits are long gone. They’re back down to their level at the height of the “Bush boom” in 2006.

And Josh Bivens, a researcher at the Economic Policy Institute, recently pointed out that the recipiency rate – the percentage of the unemployed receiving any benefits at all – is at a record low. As Mr. Bivens says, the pullback in benefits is one main reason that economic expansion isn’t reducing poverty.

So basically the right is railing against the bums on welfare not only when there aren’t any bums, but when there isn’t any welfare.