The unemployment emergency -- Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson

Jul 06, 2010

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson will be online to discuss his recent columns and the latest news.

Read today's column, The unemployment emergency in which Gene writes: "The party that begins to treat the unemployment crisis with the hair-on-fire urgency that it deserves is the party that will do well in November."

Good afternoon, and welcome to our weekly frank and cordial exchange of views. It's punishingly hot in Washington -- about to cross into triple-digit territory. I remember that last winter, when we had all the snow, quite a few people wrote in to say, "Aha! See, this proves that global warming is a hoax!" So, after the hottest June on record and a record-breaking first few days of July, I assume all the climate change deniers have had a change of heart, right? What's that? A few days or weeks don't prove anything? Gee, that's not what I was hearing from the Skeptics Club a few months ago...

But I digress. Today's column was on the unemployment crisis. And, as usual, everything's on the table. Let's get started.

Why do you criticize the GOP for blocking seemingly unlimited unemployment comp. extensions? All the GOP has demanded is that we use existing unspent stimulus funds to pay for extension or cut money from other programs. They are asking Dems to choose rather than just increase the deficit. Also many believe that unlimited unemployment benefits postpone tough choices for the unemployed such as a geographic change to get a new job or taking a job at a substantial pay cut. I know this for a fact because I have known people who won't make a painful change until their unemployment runs out. Many undesirable local jobs, such as roofing, still are filled by illegal aliens. While the work pays well, it is dirty and unpleasant, especially in our hot summer climate. Shouldn't the unemployed take these jobs?

Those stimulus funds are supposed to be spent for other purposes. Extending unemployment benefits is one of the most stimulative things the government could possibly do, according to economists -- but you mitigate the stimulus if you give with one hand and take away with the other. Your argument that unemployment benefits "postpone tough choices" makes no sense whatsoever in this economy. That might be true, in a very limited sense, when we have full employment. But the economy has lost nearly 9 million jobs. These "choices" don't exist. That's why this is a crisis.

My comment is this..I have been unemployed since Nov 09 & I have had 1..only 1 call for an interview even though I have sent out over 100+ resumes since November. I'm lazy?..I'm spoiled? I want a free ride on unemployment extension? I don't think so. If Congress doesn't pass the extension for the unemployed..long term..short term..doesn't matter..we need it plain & simple but if it doesn't get passed by end of July, I will definitely lose my apartment as I only have enough savings to pay my rent for August & pay my bills. I've already applied for food stamps but is that the way I want to go?..NO!!! I want a job..I want to get my self respect back. Do you know how embarrassing it is to be unemployed? People, the people who still have jobs..they don't look me in the eye anymore. It's awful. It's also scary to hear about people who've been unemployed for over 2 years. MY GOD!!!! can Congress treat us this way??? WE NEED THE UNEMPLOYMENT EXTENSION!!!!

Thanks for writing, and I hope things get better. I hope, too, that a benefits extension gets passed, and pronto.

Mr. Robinson: Is it hopeless to solve these complex problems when our leaders have to pretend to be less than complex themselves in order to beat off a primary challenge -- and appear like "regular folks" in order to get elected? And not just "regular" folks - willfully ignorant folks. Must their own political advantage ALWAYS be the primary consideration?

Sometimes there's feigned ignorance, sometimes there's actual ignorance, and sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.

The government printed (technically the Fed "increased its balance sheet") almost two trillion dollars to bail out the banks and investment houses. There was zero inflation as a result. Why can't the government print a hundred billion dollars or so to help working people, starting with unemployment insurance and aid to states?

I'm not sure the answer is just to crank up the printing presses. But you have a point about what is perceived as an "emergency." When the Wall Street financial houses were in danger of collapsing, the attitude was that we would do anything, and I mean anything at all, to keep the system upright. But when unemployment soars, along with foreclosures? We wring our hands and knit our brows.

The famous quote about exploiting "crisis" by Rahm Emmanuel seems to be the underlying strategy of this administration. Assuming this to be true, how can we trust an essentially social welfare party to objectively evaluate what needs to be done to create jobs in a capitalistic country? What is really going on seems to be an ideological power grab. Joblessness remains because a negative atmosphere for small and medium sized businesses exists under this administration while the same administration and congress protect " too big to fail" businesses from market risks. The stimulus was apparently poorly crafted and unresponsive to actual circumstances on the street.

There's a negative "atmosphere?" Is it just a matter of spritzing a little air freshener? Sorry, but I just don't get your argument. Unless you think everyone in the White House has gone nuts, why would any administration welcome this kind of crisis? To lose seats in November and make it harder to get the president's program through Congress? And isn't this the same party that presided over massive economic growth in the '90s?

Eugene, You suggest treating unemployment with "hair on fire" urgency. From my understanding, anything Congress can do, such as stimulus, would not take effect till long after the election. What do you think can be done between now and the election?

I doubt there's much that can be done to show big results by November. My point is that our elected officials should be less concerned about November and more concerned about doing the right things to get people back to work, regardless of how soon the results are evident. I do believe, though, that voters will look with more favor on the party that begins to treat unemployment as an emergency, rather than as a political opportunity.

Gene, I'm sixty years old and have always believed that our country can survive the ravages of either party and their leaders. The economic and military debacles left by the Bush Administration had shaken my faith a bit. But what may put me over the edge is that Glenn Beck is starting a University. Does this mean that Sarah Palin will teach Foreign Policy? Dick and Liz Cheney torture? Michelle Bachmann incoherence? Pick any Fox Party politician to teach how to borrow, spend, and run up huge debt and somehow cause the media to refer to them as the fiscally responsible party? Please say something to talk me off of the ledge..

Don't jump. The republic has survived worse. Not much worse, granted, but we'll survive.

Will you attempt to interview Alvin Greene, Eugene? Will we ever get a straight answer from the candidate? As a South Carolinian, what are your feelings on what is going on down there? While it is great that maybe twenty-thirty years ago, it would have been unthinkable that we would be talking about Alvin Greene, and to have an African American from the South be a viable candidate for the Senate is pretty great, but has the Dem establishment done anything to help him?

I'm planning to visit South Carolina in a couple of weeks, and I promise to make a special trip to Manning to try to chat with Mr. Greene. I'll let you know how it works out.

Hi Mr Robinson, thanks for your column and for taking questions today. Is it possible that neither party is doing anything about the Great Recession unemployment crisis, because this crisis is not your ordinary recession, not a part of the "normal" economic cycle? Millions upon millions of American jobs have been shipped overseas wholesale. Entire industries have disappeared from our shores. Millions of foreign workers are here, driving down American wages and benefits. How can our economy possibly grow its way out of that?

I agree that there big, structural changes taking place in the global economy. But these changes didn't happen overnight, and I guess I'm not convinced that the American economy is so sclerotic that it has breathed its last.

This is a tangent I know but all one has to do is look at the WaPo's article about where Wall Street is sending their donations (Republicans) to understand which party is truly concerned about the unemployed and regulation. This is the classic "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" mentality that Republicans have always had. Got it tough? Too bad. Should have been smarter and worked harder. Now get out of my way.

If that's the mentality, it's short-sighted. Consumer demand drives our economy, and when this many people are unemployed, demand has to suffer. It's in Wall Street's interest to get the country back to work.

Gene, you are a brilliant guy and I trust your instincts. So I will ask a simple question. Are we going to make it or not? Where is America headed? I do not have a good feeling at all, and I am curious as to what you think

Thanks for the flattery, but I'm just another ink-stained wretch. (Does anybody remember ink?) Anyhow, sure, we'll make it. But we're going to have some difficult years ahead, as we adapt to the new economic realities. I happen to think that Obama's theory -- that the next surge will come from technomogical innovation on the energy front -- sounds quite reasonable. But of course it might be something else that drives new economic growth. This is a pretty resourceful country.

My husband, a high-level operations manager for an air defense company, was laid off in May 2008, before the recession was recognized by economics. It took him 17 months to find a job, that pays $40k less than he was making before. Thank God unemployment comp lasted through his hiring, but we still lost our house. Now I have been laid off from my job as an attorney. I will only get 26 weeks of unemployment here in Calif, where the unemployment is among the highest, but where "new unemployment" in the last three months is below the level required to continue beyond 26 weeks. I receive the maximum, $475/week, but it is far below my former income and not enough to keep our child in college. If we are struggling, with our educations and experience, I can only wonder how others are managing. Layoffs put all of us in the same sinking boat. How can Congress ignore our voices and our plights, and what can ordinary citizens without a government pension do to convince them, short of my personal goal of laying them all off in November?

Thanks for writing, and I hope the next few years are better for your family than the last few. This recession is so broad and so deep that managers and professionals are really feeling the pain. On the college front, I assume you've looked into student loans and need-based financial aid. A lot of universities are making a real effort to do all they can to keep students on campus.

Given their manifest indifference to the country's greatest human suffering since the 30s -- and it's not only jobs, but also housing, and health, and debt -- don't both legacy parties deserve to be destroyed? Based on performance and not rhetoric, it looks like a case of "bad cop"/"just as bad cop" to me.

I'm not holding my breath for the demise of the two-party system, which has proved itself to be incredibly resilient. I doubt that the Tea Party will become a viable third force, but we'll see.

Why don't the unemployed march on Washington? they need to put faces on these "faceless masses" so the morons in Congress get the message. Where is the activisim?

Now that's a good question. Where are the activists, and where are the activist leaders? Anybody got a clue?

I had a depressing 4th. Despite all that has gone on, two of my good friends, both conservative, repeated the same old tax cuts and spending cuts mantra as if it were 1985. One even said anyone cheating on their unemployment should be cut off and eat out of dumpsters. The other said corporations should not pay any taxes. How can this be? What can I say to convince them to consider something other than the same ideology of trickle down economics?

You could show them a pie chart of the federal budget, and demonstrate how little of it is in any sense discretionary. Once you account for Medicare, Social Security, debt service and the military, there's only a little wedge left.


Folks, my time is up for today. Thanks for dropping by, and I'll see you again next week.


In This Chat
Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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