Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Coalition of the Cruel

When it comes to answering the question as to why the jobless benefits bill keeps getting filibustered by the GOP, Paul Krugman doesn’t mince words.

The answer is that we’re facing a coalition of the heartless, the clueless and the confused. Nothing can be done about the first group, and probably not much about the second. But maybe it’s possible to clear up some of the confusion.

By the heartless, I mean Republicans who have made the cynical calculation that blocking anything President Obama tries to do — including, or perhaps especially, anything that might alleviate the nation’s economic pain — improves their chances in the midterm elections. Don’t pretend to be shocked: you know they’re out there, and make up a large share of the G.O.P. caucus.

By the clueless I mean people like Sharron Angle, the Republican candidate for senator from Nevada, who has repeatedly insisted that the unemployed are deliberately choosing to stay jobless, so that they can keep collecting benefits. A sample remark: “You can make more money on unemployment than you can going down and getting one of those jobs that is an honest job but it doesn’t pay as much. We’ve put in so much entitlement into our government that we really have spoiled our citizenry.”

Now, I don’t have the impression that unemployed Americans are spoiled; desperate seems more like it. One doubts, however, that any amount of evidence could change Ms. Angle’s view of the world — and there are, unfortunately, a lot of people in our political class just like her.

But there are also, one hopes, at least a few political players who are honestly misinformed about what unemployment benefits do — who believe, for example, that Senator Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona, was making sense when he declared that extending benefits would make unemployment worse, because “continuing to pay people unemployment compensation is a disincentive for them to seek new work.”

Of course the Republicans are doing this because they see it as the way to prevent the economy from picking up or lessening the pain. That’s a no-brainer, and the GOP has been very transparent about it. The fact that they would inflict cruelty intentionally is not a real big surprise either; they don’t believe in being nice. That’s wimpy, and the GOP is nothing if not butch and tough… at least until those mean old Democrats hurt their feelings.

The explanation for the clueless is that people like Sharron Angle and the people who agree with her have probably never lived without a safety net. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that Sharron Angle has never had to worry about where her next meal is coming from or whether or not she would be able to pay her bills or choose between paying for groceries or healthcare.

The same goes for Sen. Kyl and his statement about unemployment being a disincentive. Chances are he’s never been out of a job in his life. Good for him. But it also means he doesn’t know the desperation and the gnawing feeling of doom when there’s no jobs, no prospects, and your future looks bleak. Getting a small subsistence from unemployment insurance doesn’t exactly brighten your day and convince you that all will be well if you just hang out on the couch and watch The History Channel. And it’s not like there are lots of jobs out there, anyway.

When the economy is booming, and lack of sufficient willing workers is limiting growth, generous unemployment benefits may keep employment lower than it would have been otherwise. But as you may have noticed, right now the economy isn’t booming — again, there are five unemployed workers for every job opening. Cutting off benefits to the unemployed will make them even more desperate for work — but they can’t take jobs that aren’t there.

The GOP will continue to block extending the benefits. They say they’re trying not to add to the deficit, which, for those of us who watched the Bush administration take the Clinton surplus and dive head first into the red ink of tax cuts for the rich and the war in Iraq, is a gob-smacking reason, but that’s the one that gets them on Hardball. The real reason is that they want to do anything they can to ensure that the Obama administration fails, and this is just their way of doing their part. They really don’t care about the deficit — they never have — and they really don’t care about the unemployed because when you’re out of work, you can’t give money to the GOP.