Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The Heartless, the Clueless, the Confused and Me

I need to get used to the fact that I am both unemployed and underemployed now. I don't have a full time job right now, and the job I do have is just as an adjunct professor at UOG with no benefits and very little money. For most people who know me, but don't really know me, they assumed that the moment I returned to Guam I immediately got a job at UOG being a professor. It always comes to a shock when they hear that I might have any trouble finding a job there.

Its not a matter that I hate these sorts of assumptions, gi minagahet, I wish they were true and I wish that universities did work like that, especially the university here. But even though I know these assumptions to be false, sometimes they help sustain my own fantasy of myself. For instance, this past year has basically made clear to me that if my wish is to stay on Guam, then I might not be able to support myself here by being an academic, at least not as my job. The climate at the University of Guam is such that I could literally never get hired there on a permanent basis anytime soon. I could simply wait around, hoping, wishing and praying for something, living in a sort of suspended state, waiting for that chance to appear, or I could move on and accept the fact that the goals I had for myself may not ever be realized. That while I may always be certain things at heart, in terms of a job I may have to be something completely different.

One of the things which really forced me to confront the reality of my situation was the fact that my mother this week suggested that because of my poor finances and low pay, I go on unemployment until I can find a job. Ti hu tungo' kao guaha unemployment guini giya Guahan?

So now when I read something such as the Paul Krugman article below, I am not reading it as just somebody who wants to join and participate in an ideological debate about this issue of unemployment benefits, but rather as someone who is stuck in that desperate place of job-seeking.


Punishing the Jobless
Published: July 4, 2010
The New York Times

There was a time when everyone took it for granted that unemployment insurance, which normally terminates after 26 weeks, would be extended in times of persistent joblessness. It was, most people agreed, the decent thing to do.

But that was then. Today, American workers face the worst job market since the Great Depression, with five job seekers for every job opening, with the average spell of unemployment now at 35 weeks. Yet the Senate went home for the holiday weekend without extending benefits. How was that possible?

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.” So let’s talk about why that belief is dead wrong.

Do unemployment benefits reduce the incentive to seek work? Yes: workers receiving unemployment benefits aren’t quite as desperate as workers without benefits, and are likely to be slightly more choosy about accepting new jobs. The operative word here is “slightly”: recent economic research suggests that the effect of unemployment benefits on worker behavior is much weaker than was previously believed. Still, it’s a real effect when the economy is doing well.

But it’s an effect that is completely irrelevant to our current situation. 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.

Wait: there’s more. One main reason there aren’t enough jobs right now is weak consumer demand. Helping the unemployed, by putting money in the pockets of people who badly need it, helps support consumer spending. That’s why the Congressional Budget Office rates aid to the unemployed as a highly cost-effective form of economic stimulus. And unlike, say, large infrastructure projects, aid to the unemployed creates jobs quickly — while allowing that aid to lapse, which is what is happening right now, is a recipe for even weaker job growth, not in the distant future but over the next few months.

But won’t extending unemployment benefits worsen the budget deficit? Yes, slightly — but as I and others have been arguing at length, penny-pinching in the midst of a severely depressed economy is no way to deal with our long-run budget problems. And penny-pinching at the expense of the unemployed is cruel as well as misguided.

So, is there any chance that these arguments will get through? Not, I fear, to Republicans: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something,” said Upton Sinclair, “when his salary” — or, in this case, his hope of retaking Congress — “depends upon his not understanding it.” But there are also centrist Democrats who have bought into the arguments against helping the unemployed. It’s up to them to step back, realize that they have been misled — and do the right thing by passing extended benefits.


TenThousandThings said...

Hi Michael,

BTW, thanks so much for your reporting from Korea -- we're posting on that next week. Your writing is so thought-provoking, it takes time to read and reflect on your work.

Re your situation, have you thought about doing professional writing, blogging? You're one of the best writers I have ever read. Some bloggers ( not to mention names, but who don't write or think as well as you) get book contracts on the basis of the popularity of their blogs.

There are a lot of people in the blogosphere who would like to do this but who just don't have the talent and other traits it takes to be successful at this. But you do. Your voice and the way you "see" is magnetic and resonant on so many levels, and you speak to a very broad readership.

I was drawn to your blog because of its depth and texture, and writing as well as the crucial, relevant content. The quality of your writing is on the same calibre as the best professional creative writers I read. Your soulfulness and range reminds me of my favorite Appalachian writer, Silas House's "A Country Boy Can Surmise" blog.

I can't help but wonder if this kind of creative, public writing might be your "call" as well as higher education. Most academics don't have the time to engage in this level of public writing and most don't have the creative talent to write the way you do. As someone who has studied with some of the best writers around, I find your writing thought and soul-provoking, and dazzling... I'm usually a speed reader but I have to go v. slow reading your blogs, so I don't miss anything. There's so much there.

I can't help but wonder if this time might be a blessing in disguise pushing you even more into public writing where you might be meant to be just as much as in scholarship and teaching. I've seen this sort of situation repeatedly in the lives of my friends, including academics who wanted to be in one place but ended up in another place quite unintended and are so glad destiny forced them in the different directions.

Just some thoughts, with much admiration and gratitude for your work,

Jean at TTT

Michael Lujan Bevacqua said...

Hafa Adai Jean, I'm so sorry I didn't respond to your comment earlier. Your comments and those from a few other people on my blog helped cheer me up when I was feeling very down about this whole issue.

Political blogging or writing is something I've always been interested in, but I guess I've never had the connections to make it happen. If you have any ideas for how to make it happen, I'm welcome to any ideas. I've also had problems in academia about my writing being too political or not "academic" enough and so I've always tip toed on that line.

I think that at this period in my life, I am going to have to be more open, for as you said, the prospect of ending up in a completely different place. It's of course bit daunting and frustrating at first, but slowly I'm coming to terms with it, and once you read a certain point, it actually feels exciting.


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