The Party of Unemployment

From now until November 2, the Republican Party will be the party of unemployment. The logic is straightforward; the more people who are unemployed on Election Day, the better the prospects for Republicans in the fall election. They expect, with good cause, that voters will hold the Democrats responsible for the state of the economy. Therefore anything that the Republicans can do to make the economy worse between now and then will help their election prospects.

While it might be bad taste to accuse a major national political party of deliberately wanting to throw people out of jobs, there is no other plausible explanation for the Republicans’ behavior. The Republicans have balked at supporting nearly every bill that had any serious hope of creating or keeping jobs, most recently filibustering on bills that provided aid to state and local governments and extending unemployment benefits. The result of the Republicans’ actions, unless they are reversed quickly, is that hundreds of thousands more workers will be thrown out of work by Election Day.

The story is straightforward. Nearly every state and local government across the country is looking at large budget shortfalls for their 2011 fiscal years, most of which begin July 1, 2010. Since they are generally required by state constitutions or local charters to balance their budgets, they will have no choice except to raise taxes and/or make large cutbacks and layoff workers to bring spending and revenue into line.

State and local governments have cut their workforce by an average of 65,000 a month over the last three months. Without substantial aid from the federal government this pace is likely accelerate. The Republican agenda in blocking aid to the states may add another 300,000 people to the unemployment roles by early November

The blockage of extended unemployment benefits promises similar dividends. Unemployment benefits are not just about providing income support to those who are out of work, they also provide a boost to the economy. Since unemployed workers generally have little other than their benefits to support themselves, this is money that will almost immediately be spent. The benefits paid to workers are income to food stores and other retail outlets.

Unemployment insurance provides the sort of boost to demand that the economy desperately needs. That is why neutral parties like the Congressional Budget Office or economist Mark Zandi, a top advisor to John McCain’s presidential bid, always list unemployment benefits as one of the best forms of stimulus.

Republicans give two reasons for opposing benefits. First, they claim that benefits discourage people from working. Second, they object that the Democrats’ proposal will add to the national debt.

On the first point there is a considerable amount of economic research. Most indicates that in periods when the economy is operating near its capacity more generous benefits may modestly increase the unemployment rate. However, they are less likely to have that effect now. The reason is simple; the economy does not have enough jobs. The latest data from the Labor Department show that there are five unemployed workers for every job opening.

In this context, unemployment benefits may give some workers the option to remain unemployed longer to find a job that better fits their skills, but they are unlikely to affect the total number of unemployed. In other words, a $300 weekly unemployment check may allow an experienced teacher the luxury of looking for another teaching job rather than being forced to grab a job at Wal-Mart.

However, if the teacher took the job at Wal-Mart, then this would simply displace a recent high school grad who has no other job opportunities. That might be a great turn of events in Republican-econ land, but it does not reduce the overall unemployment rate, nor does it benefit the overall economy in any obvious way.

The other argument the Republicans give is that these bills would add to the national debt. For example, the latest extension of unemployment benefits would have added $22 billion to the debt by the end of 2011. This means that the debt would be $9,807,000,000 instead of 9,785,000,000 at the end of fiscal 2011, an increase of the debt to GDP ratio from 65.3 percent to 65.4 percent.

It is possible that Congressional Republicans, who were willing to vote for hundreds of billions of dollars of war expenditures without paying for them, or trillions of dollars of tax cuts without paying for them, are actually concerned about this sort of increase in the national debt. It is possible that this is true, but not very plausible.

The more likely explanation is that the Republicans want to block anything that can boost the economy and create jobs. Throwing people out of work may not be pretty, but politics was never pretty, and it is getting less so by the day.

DEAN BAKER is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy and False Profits: Recoverying From the Bubble Economy.

This column was originally published by The Guardian.





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Dean Baker is a macroeconomist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. He previously worked as a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute and an assistant professor at Bucknell University.

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