Jobless Benefits Stalled, Without a Good Reason

Republicans in the Senate used a procedural vote to delay extending unemployment insurance to some of the 6 million Americans who rely on these benefits for day-to-day expenses.

Republicans didn't mount much of a substantive fight against the measure -- only Sen. Tom Coburn spoke out against it. But as it so often happens, where the GOP stalwarts balked, the Wall Street Journal's editors squawked, preening their fiscal hawk feathers and claiming that jobless benefits were lifting the unemployment rate by up to two percentage points -- the equivalent of 3 million jobs.

It seems unlikely that jobless benefits stand in the way of creating 3 million jobs. Think about that figure: 3 million jobs. It is the equivalent of 18 consecutive March's, when we added about 162,000 positions. The number of total job openings in February 2010 was not even 3 million. It was 2.7 million, according the BLS. The same as in January 2010. The same, in fact, as in February and January 2009, when GDP was busy falling by six-percentage points, annualized. The US economy is moving through a hiring crisis that has little to do with the length of the jobless benefits.

It's true that unemployment benefits subsidize joblessness, and subsidies generally encourage behavior. But when the WSJ writes that "many unemployed workers don't start seriously looking for a job until they are about to lose their benefits" it assumes the existence a fecund job market waiting for lazy Americans to get up and apply for jobs. To the contrary, there are five officially unemployed Americans for every hiring position. Americans don't need unemployment benefits to discourage them from working. The job market is doing that all by itself.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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