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How Bad Things Are
Posted on May 14, 2012
By Paul Krugman
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.
Reprinted from “End This Depression Now!” by Paul Krugman. Copyright © 2012 by Paul Krugman. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Co.
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