While I’ve disagreed strongly with Megan McArdle, she recently wrote one of the more humane pieces I’ve read in the mainstream media about unemployment and underemployment (boldface mine):
I was unemployed for basically two years between the time I graduated from business school in 2001, and the time I accepted a job with The Economist in 2003. I was much luckier than most people in that situation, both because my parents let me stay in their spare bedroom, and because I was working during much of that time–freelancing, flirting with a start up, doing some tech consulting, and of course, working in a trailer at Ground Zero. But none of these were permanent, and at the time, it wasn’t clear that any of them were going to turn into something. I felt the isolation and the desperate fear of everyone who doesn’t have a “real job”, the people who don’t know how they’re going to earn enough over the next forty years to keep body and soul together. I experienced real despair for the first time in my life. And it changed me, permanently.
The least important change was the one that is best measured: people who have a bout of unemployment at the beginning of their careers still earn less than their peers ten years later. What really matters is how it changed my outlook on the world. I became afraid then in a way that has never really left me. I obsess about economic security. I catastrophize small setbacks. Before 2001, I was fairly blithely indifferent to the prospect of misfortune; now I spend an awful lot of time cataloguing everything that could possibly go wrong. My grandfather used to hide pretty substantial sums of money around the house, the legacy of the Great Depression’s bank failures, which I thought was very funny. Now it sounds sort of sensible….
When I was finally offered a job by The Economist, I was taken aback; I had stopped believing anything good would happen, ever….
And that’s what happens to the long-term unemployed who were young and flexible when it happened, who find awesome careers that are way better than the career track they got knocked off of, who had terrific familial support, and enough temporary or part-time work to have no immediate fears about where their next meal was coming from. Now think about what is happening to millions of people out there who don’t have that: whose savings and social networks are exhausted (or were never very big to begin with), who are in their fifties and not young enough to retire, but very hard to place with an employer who will pay them as much as they were worth to their old firm. Think of the people who can’t support their children, or themselves. Think of their despair.
That is what these numbers mean: millions of people, staring into the abyss of an empty future.
I think this is the real problem with having graduates of elite finishing schools running things: most of them, though not all, have never faced this kind of hopelessness, the belief–or even ‘only’ worry–that this is as good as it will ever get. It does change you. It humbles you and, if you’re not a narcissistic asshole, gives you a visceral, immediate understanding of what hardship can mean. Which brings me to something by the Rude Pundit, about an elderly woman he encountered recently:
…the Rude Pundit stood right behind her yesterday, waiting to pick up the pills that prevent him from going on a five-state killing spree. She was getting three prescriptions. The total was $6.00. This puzzled the old lady. She had never paid anything before, and even this seemingly small amount was obviously causing her consternation. The cashier checked with the pharmacist, who said that there had been a minor change to her plan, and now she had to pay a little for the scrips, a buck-fifty, three bucks. She apologized and put aside the couple of other things she was going to purchase to pay for the medicine…
A drug benefit cut for an old lady in a diaper and a closed tax loophole on private jets are not balance. That six bucks cut into that woman’s limited income in profound ways. To use the [extremely rich] friend’s equation in reverse (times ten), $6 is like $3000. And even that’s not a big deal to the wealthy because you can bet that the woman is living paycheck to paycheck. The millionaire has shitloads of money that don’t even count as taxable income….
If your parents supported you through college in order for you to get your MBA and get rich, then you take care of them if they go through hard times. You don’t say, “Sorry, Mom, but how can I create jobs if I have to help you avoid losing your house?”
…Back at the pharmacy, the old woman walked away from the counter, putting back the cheap socks and orange juice she was going to buy, leaving with her prescriptions, her sacrifice far from shared.
So much suffering and so our political betters fetishize deficits decades from now, deficits that might not even come to pass. If I were attempting to establish a presidential legacy, pushing more needy people into penury and poverty based on historically inaccurate CBO estimates would not be it.
We are ruled by sociopaths.