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Monday, May 30, 2011

Paul Krugman: Against Learned Helplessness

I first started worrying about the possibility of a slow recovery of unemployment long ago, e.g. I criticized policymakers in 2008 "for not anticipating the slow response of employment when putting the stimulus package into place." Ever since, I've tried to keep this issue alive here and in columns, reminding everyone at every opportunity that we need to do more about the unemployment problem, calling or jobs programs, more from the Fed, etc., etc. It's been frustrating. A year ago I gave up on policymakers, but promised "I'll still complain -- there's no reason to let policymakers off the hook." I've tried to do that, to the point where I've sometimes wondered if I'm overdoing it by making the same point again and again. I'm still pessimistic about anything being done to help the millions of unemployed -- I talked earlier this week about how "there seems to be no shortage of reasons to dismiss weakness in labor markets" -- but it's worth it to continue to try. So I'm  glad to see others making the case that we need to do far more than we are doing to help the unemployed:

Against Learned Helplessness, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Unemployment is a terrible scourge across much of the Western world. Almost 14 million Americans are jobless, and millions more are stuck with part-time work or jobs that fail to use their skills. ... Nor is the situation showing rapid improvement. This is a continuing tragedy, and in a rational world bringing an end to this tragedy would be our top economic priority.
Yet ... on both sides of the Atlantic a consensus has emerged among movers and shakers that nothing can or should be done about jobs. Instead..., one sees a proliferation of excuses for inaction, garbed in the language of wisdom and responsibility. ...
There’s nothing wrong with our workers — remember, just four years ago the unemployment rate was below 5 percent. The core of our economic problem is, instead, the debt — mainly mortgage debt — that households ran up during the bubble years... Now that the bubble has burst, that debt is acting as a persistent drag on the economy, preventing any real recovery in employment. And once you realize that the overhang of private debt is the problem, you realize that there are a number of things that could be done about it.
For example, we could have W.P.A.-type programs putting the unemployed to work doing useful things like repairing roads — which would also, by raising incomes, make it easier for households to pay down debt. We could have a serious program of mortgage modification, reducing the debts of troubled homeowners. We could try to get inflation back up to the 4 percent rate that prevailed during Ronald Reagan’s second term, which would help to reduce the real burden of debt. ...
In pointing out that we could be doing much more about unemployment, I recognize, of course, the political obstacles to actually pursuing any of the policies that might work. In the United States, in particular, any effort to tackle unemployment will run into a stone wall of Republican opposition. Yet that’s not a reason to stop talking about the issue. In fact, looking back at my own writings over the past year or so, it’s clear that I too ... said far too little about what we really should be doing to deal with our most important problem.
As I see it, policy makers are sinking into a condition of learned helplessness on the jobs issue: the more they fail to do anything about the problem, the more they convince themselves that there’s nothing they could do. And those of us who know better should be doing all we can to break that vicious circle.

    Posted by on Monday, May 30, 2011 at 12:15 AM in Economics, Unemployment | Permalink  Comments (190)



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