Devil Take the Hindmost As Public Policy: Thoughts on Joblessness and Need

While I've disagreed strongly with Megan McArdle, she recently wrote one of the more humane pieces I've read in the mainstream media about unemployment and underemployment (italics mine):

I was unemployed for basically two years between the time I graduated from business school in 2001, and the time I accepted a job with The Economist in 2003. I was much luckier than most people in that situation, both because my parents let me stay in their spare bedroom, and because I was working during much of that time--freelancing, flirting with a start up, doing some tech consulting, and of course, working in a trailer at Ground Zero. But none of these were permanent, and at the time, it wasn't clear that any of them were going to turn into something. I felt the isolation and the desperate fear of everyone who doesn't have a "real job", the people who don't know how they're going to earn enough over the next forty years to keep body and soul together. I experienced real despair for the first time in my life. And it changed me, permanently.

The least important change was the one that is best measured: people who have a bout of unemployment at the beginning of their careers still earn less than their peers ten years later. What really matters is how it changed my outlook on the world. I became afraid then in a way that has never really left me. I obsess about economic security. I catastrophize small setbacks. Before 2001, I was fairly blithely indifferent to the prospect of misfortune; now I spend an awful lot of time cataloguing everything that could possibly go wrong. My grandfather used to hide pretty substantial sums of money around the house, the legacy of the Great Depression's bank failures, which I thought was very funny. Now it sounds sort of sensible....

When I was finally offered a job by The Economist, I was taken aback; I had stopped believing anything good would happen, ever....

And that's what happens to the long-term unemployed who were young and flexible when it happened, who find awesome careers that are way better than the career track they got knocked off of, who had terrific familial support, and enough temporary or part-time work to have no immediate fears about where their next meal was coming from. Now think about what is happening to millions of people out there who don't have that: whose savings and social networks are exhausted (or were never very big to begin with), who are in their fifties and not young enough to retire, but very hard to place with an employer who will pay them as much as they were worth to their old firm. Think of the people who can't support their children, or themselves. Think of their despair.

That is what these numbers mean: millions of people, staring into the abyss of an empty future.

I think this is the real problem with having graduates of elite finishing schools running things: most of them, though not all, have never faced this kind of hopelessness, the belief--or even 'only' worry--that this is as good as it will ever get. It does change you. It humbles you and, if you're not a narcissistic asshole, gives you a visceral, immediate understanding of what hardship can mean. Which brings me to something by the Rude Pundit, about an elderly woman he encountered recently:

...the Rude Pundit stood right behind her yesterday, waiting to pick up the pills that prevent him from going on a five-state killing spree. She was getting three prescriptions. The total was $6.00. This puzzled the old lady. She had never paid anything before, and even this seemingly small amount was obviously causing her consternation. The cashier checked with the pharmacist, who said that there had been a minor change to her plan, and now she had to pay a little for the scrips, a buck-fifty, three bucks. She apologized and put aside the couple of other things she was going to purchase to pay for the medicine...

A drug benefit cut for an old lady in a diaper and a closed tax loophole on private jets are not balance. That six bucks cut into that woman's limited income in profound ways. To use the [extremely rich] friend's equation in reverse (times ten), $6 is like $3000. And even that's not a big deal to the wealthy because you can bet that the woman is living paycheck to paycheck. The millionaire has shitloads of money that don't even count as taxable income....

If your parents supported you through college in order for you to get your MBA and get rich, then you take care of them if they go through hard times. You don't say, "Sorry, Mom, but how can I create jobs if I have to help you avoid losing your house?"

...Back at the pharmacy, the old woman walked away from the counter, putting back the cheap socks and orange juice she was going to buy, leaving with her prescriptions, her sacrifice far from shared.

So much suffering and so our political betters fetishize deficits decades from now, deficits that might not even come to pass. If I were attempting to establish a presidential legacy, pushing more needy people into penury and poverty based on historically inaccurate CBO estimates would not be it.

We are ruled by sociopaths.

More like this

"...elite finishing schools..."

*Exactly*. I have been thinking this sort of thing a lot recently:

People from elite institutions and backgrounds are actually far LESS qualified than most people to run a government.

The bottom line is that they just can't relate to the 99% of us in the rest of the world. Not only are their personal lives fundamentally different, but they have been surrounded all their lives with the stories and rationalizations coming from family, friends, professors, peers and colleagues that have brainwashed them to believe:

*What the wealthy have is deserved and earned and should therefore not be taxed.
*The world needs to have wealthy and privileged people and that is the best way, just and good.
*The rights that the wealthy and privileged have are just, the workers and unions are just greedy and selfish.
*The wealthy and privileged should not be taxed
*Lawyers are just helping people

And similar bullshit the wealthy have convinced themselves of.

And yes, some of them are sociopaths/psychopaths. But I think the brainwashing has a major effect even on people like Obama.

Well, just listen to Mike when he rants about the people who want to teach creationism in the schools.

There is a fundamental dishonesty in rants about juries being composed of the undereducated and about people in high office being overeducated. In the end, when all things are considered, all the rants reduce to a belief that only people who agree with Mike are fit to tell other people what to do and believe. All world leaders would preferably be Yale educated union organizers (of which there are quite a few, actually).

The main problem we see from the McArdle experience is not that she lacked for money for a while, but that she had a crisis of personal worth - value, purpose, meaning. Getting meaning from employment is not ideal, but that aside, it is a reality that most people get some amount of their personal esteem from their employment opportunities. This is higher on the heirarchy of needs, perhaps, but still very important. We should be attentive to this. As a society, we need to provide a way to deal with this. Trying to have 100% employment is one possibility; another is having a large community of people who do not participate directly in wage earning but still are esteemed for their contributions to the community.

We see recently a re-emphasis on the value of stay at home mothers in some communities, and how that emphasis on non-market, non-monetized value is a healthy thing, that promotes the true feminist ideal by endorsing valid life choices. Perhaps there should be other roles which are also embraced in this fashion; like 'stay at home grandparents' - instead of warehousing the retirees or embracing assisted suicide.

Every spring when my old (67) painting partner gets back from his trip to Florida I ask "Why did you not do your patriotic duty and fall over and die?"
He accepts that it would save Medicare a lot of dough and that I might get another painter and employ someone, but he's not ready to do his duty.
(Wasn't that Logan's Run?)

I tend to agree with BenK, and would add that the "Our leaders need to be regular folks who I can identify with, rather than Ivy League educated elites" mentality is what makes Sarah Palin popular.


You present your own privileged background. Grandparents do take a heavy role in childcare in a LOT of families. True, not in the upper middle class suburban homes. But otherwise working families have no choice but to burden their parents with childcare of the next generation as well. I also find it amusing that "stay at home mom" and "stay at home grandparents" are your two specific examples here. As in childcare is a) still a woman's domain and b) more important than creating value for the next generation. I agree with your general idea. I'd like to see unemployment checks maybe put peoples skills to use for the government or for projects when they can be. This wouldn't always be feasible, but it'd be a good way of valuing peoples experience even when they can't find work in the private sector. Similarly WPA programs have been mentioned before. I also agree we need to do a better job at valuing older people. But please stop making assumptions that their sole worth is (along with a woman's) childcare. Those grandparents and moms have careers and deserve an equal right to be valued for their career aspirations rather than solely as a caretaker. Plus that leaves out all of us who choose not to procreate.

I've been in various computer systems jobs (mostly operating systems development) throughout my career, and that's almost 30 years now. I'm good at what I do, and most of my job transitions have either been my choice (moving to a new opportunity) or have been the result of my employer going Chapter 7. However, this has almost always been during a period where my skills were in demand, so I never worried about finding another job.

Except in September, 2003. My employer, a start-up, folded when its prospects began to dim and the VCs decided to get their money out before it was all gone. That was a bad stretch. Almost nobody was hiring. I had a few interviews early on, no offers, and then, for several months, nothing. I had quite a bit of savings and wasn't too worried, but by December or so, I realized it was starting to get to me. I was working at an unfunded startup that was trying to get funded (it didn't, but at least it was something to do), and that helped, but it still hangs over you.

And that's mild compared to what most of the long-term unemployed go through. I have trouble even imagining it. And I bet those legislators who have spent their entire adult lives in "public service" can't imagine it at all.