Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Incentives Not to Work

Many years ago I had a job that moved out of state. Jobs were not plentiful at that time and I had shared custody of three young children. For a short period, I took unemployment checks but soon got off the dole by doing some consulting work. This temporary work, along with use of the savings I had, got us through the year it took to find the right job in the right area for me.

Temporary assistance, as envisioned in the original law paid for by business, is a good and necessary stopgap. Lengthy and extended assistance at taxpayer's expense is just another form of welfare and government control.

"The second way government assistance programs contribute to long-term unemployment is by providing an incentive, and the means, not to work. Each unemployed person has a 'reservation wage'—the minimum wage he or she insists on getting before accepting a job. Unemployment insurance and other social assistance programs increase [the] reservation wage, causing an unemployed person to remain unemployed longer."

Any guess who wrote that? Milton Friedman, perhaps. Simon Legree? Sorry.

Full credit goes to Lawrence H. Summers, the current White House economic adviser, who wrote those sensible words in his chapter on "Unemployment" in the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, first published in 1999.

But do these Senators really think it's compassionate to give people an additional incentive to stay out of the job market, losing crucial skills and contacts? And how politically smart is it for Democrats to embrace policies that keep the jobless rate higher than it would otherwise be? How many Democrats share Mr. Harkin's apparent desire to defend a jobless rate near 9% (today it is 9.7%) in the fall election campaign.

We should add that Republicans would rather not fight on these incentive grounds and are instead opposing the new benefits only because Democrats refuse to pay for them and want to add to the deficit. In other words, the GOP is merely asking Democrats to live up to their own "pay as you go" fiscal promises, since the total bill for these jobless benefits has now hit nearly $90 billion.

If Republicans were really cynical, they'd let the new benefits pass and run against the higher jobless rate in the fall. In any case, no one should be surprised that when you subsidize people for not working, more people will choose not to work.

Read WSJ article here.

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