Washington Post Pretends Complaints About Unemployment Insurance Are Credible

Michael A. Fletcher and Dana Hedgpeth have a piece up on unemployment benefits in today's Washington Post that is a classic example of a piece that strives so hard to achieve balance that it actually sacrifices credibility.

In this case, the reporters shift from a straight explanation of the current conditions that have led countless Americans to seek unemployment insurance, to a wack-ass fantasia in which current economic conditions are actually a figment of the imagination and that the real problem is that too many Americans are living it up on the dole!

To wit:

Millions of Americans have been forced to rely on unemployment payments for extended periods as the nation struggles through its longest period of high joblessness in a generation, and critics are taking aim, saying that the Depression-era program created as a temporary bridge for laid-off workers is turning into an expensive entitlement.

We see here the attempt to lay two ideas alongside each other. One is that "millions of Americans" are "forced to rely" on unemployment insurance. The other is that no one is being "forced to rely" on anything. Rather, they are enjoying the benefits of "an expensive entitlement." The problem here is that only one of these premises is objectively true -- the former. The other is presented as a competing, interesting point of view. But the only thing interesting about the latter point of view is that it's very wrong.

And the reporters have actually done actual reporting that attests to this!

Andrew Stettner, deputy director of the National Employment Law Center, says there's a good reason people are out of work for so long. There are six unemployed Americans for every available job, he said.

"The primary reason people are out of work so long is a lack of jobs," Stettner said.

It seems to me that in order to prove that people are foregoing job searches to live off unemployment insurance, there would first have to be jobs available to seek out in the first place. But there aren't! Nevertheless, the reporters choose to breathe life into a line of argument that they should be asphyxiating:

But complaints that extending unemployment payments discourages job-seeking have begun to bubble into the political debate. Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) recently single-handedly held up the latest extension, a bill to keep unemployment benefits in place for 30 more days, saying Congress should find other cuts to cover its $10 billion price tag.

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) did not join Bunning's effort, but he defended his colleague's point of view. Kyl told the Senate he questioned why anyone would see unemployment benefits as helpful to the economy, or to the job market.

"If anything, continuing to pay people unemployment compensation is a disincentive for them to seek new work," Kyl said. "I am sure most of them would like work and probably have tried to seek it, but you can't argue it is a job enhancer."

In the first place, the only reason that these "complaints" are "bubbl[ing] into the public debate" is because reporters are doing the bubbling without applying any amount of critical thought to whether they belong there in the first place. Courtesy of our own Ryan Grim, here's what such critical thought looks like:

Unemployment benefits are generally so small that much of it is often used to pay for COBRA health insurance, even when subsidized. The size of the benefits does not generally cover the cost of living and it would be hard to find a single person who would prefer unemployment to having a job so that they could get subsidized COBRA.

The big lie of this article is the suggestion that "critics are taking aim." Those "critics" are Jon Kyl and a "labor economist" from the Heritage Foundation who very tepidly cosigns Kyl's position but who nevertheless allows that, "it is appropriate and natural for Congress to extend the time limit of unemployment insurance with the job market as bad as it is." That's a dearth of both "critics" and "aim."

But, more to the point, who's arguing that unemployment insurance is a job enhancer? Well, per Grim, they are out there, and unlike Kyl, they actually make a lick of sense:

[Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus] added that Kyl's economic argument was flawed, as well. Unemployment benefits do create jobs because the recipients cycle the money through the economy. He cited a Congressional Budget Office analysis that said the Gross Domestic Product grew $1.90 for every dollar the federal government paid out...

Kyl could also consult economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. "[Unemployment insurance] puts money into people's pockets and they spend almost all of it. That creates jobs," he said.

Also? One thing that unemployment insurance does enhance, greatly, is the ability of people who cannot find work (no matter how hard they try -- because there aren't enough jobs being created) is to not, subsequently, starve to death.

Additionally, the reporters are just incorrect when they suggest that Kyl "defended his colleague's point of view" by questioning "why anyone would see unemployment benefits as helpful to the economy." In fact, Bunning never raised such questions. His melodramatic hold-ups were exclusively related to holding the lives of thousands of Americans hostage so that he could make a fleeting point about fiscal discipline. The contention that unemployment insurance provides a disincentive to job seekers is Kyl's contention alone.

Anyway, obviously millions of Americans should be faulted for not working much harder to find jobs that do not exist.

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