March 4, 2021

Economix: Maybe the Unemployed Aren’t Invisible After All

DESCRIPTIONCaitlin O’Connell-Rodwell The elephant in the room.

America is in the worst jobs crisis since the Great Depression, and Washington is fussing about whether it will make good on the debts it has already committed to. What gives?

I’ve described a few different theories explaining why the unemployed are invisible, including that unemployed people have low voter turnout rates; they don’t congregate at unemployment offices anymore; the labor unions that used to organize them have weakened; extended jobless benefits have kept these workers complacent; the media haven’t devoted sufficient coverage to unemployment; and the huge unemployment statistics desensitize people to the jobs crisis.

But what if the entire premise of my question is wrong: What if the unemployed are actually too visible, and that’s why Washington keeps wanting to talk about everything else?

In his column last week, David Leonhardt noted that “by pushing for new stimulus,” President Obama “would also tie himself ever closer to the troubled economy and the unpopular policies to help it.”

Maybe members of Congress are thinking the same way about their own images. They know the jobs crisis is the elephant in the room. But they don’t want to talk about it, because almost anything they could do to alleviate unemployment would still not return it to prerecession levels, so they would still be blamed for any remaining pain.

And so the debt ceiling debate is just a big fiscal version of “Wag the Dog” — a diversion created to distract America from the real crisis at hand. Except that in the process, Washington may be creating a whole other crisis that merely magnifies the first one.

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