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Reflections on the Great Recession

Don Peck’s comprehensive article, “How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America” (March Atlantic), omits some fundamental concepts. U.S. manufacturing jobs were transferred overseas by U.S. business executives. The U.S. economy was run into the ditch by U.S. banking and financial executives. Megastores in the U.S. are stocked predominantly with foreign goods due to the decisions of U.S. purchasing managers.

It is our own fault that our economy is a mess. Unless and until U.S. business executives realize that they have responsibilities beyond their bottom line to maintain the legal, social, and economic environment that gives them perhaps the greatest degree of entrepreneurial freedom in the world, the economic future of the U.S. indeed looks bleak.

Ted Thompson
Schenectady, N.Y.

Don Peck barely acknowledges the relevance of immigration to blue-collar unemployment, or the effect that continued high rates of immigration will have on unemployment in a recovering economy with slow job creation. The major reform of immigration policy in 1965, and later incremental changes, have drastically increased immigration rates, and increased the percentage of immigrants who are poorly educated and compete directly with blue-collar American workers for jobs.

In the early 1960s, and for many decades before, we received 300,000 or fewer immigrants a year, almost all legal. In 2008, the last year for which the government has released data, we received 1.1 million permanent legal immigrants, of whom three-quarters were at least 20 years of age. Until the recession, we were also receiving about 500,000 illegal immigrants a year. Our immigration policies have been a direct assault on the poorest American workers for decades. There is no reason to think that the number of legal immigrants will have been much less in 2009 than it was in 2008, and we continue to issue a large number of temporary work visas as well.

We are importing unemployment at a time of high unemployment.

Thomas M. Tharp
West Lafayette, Ind.

“How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America” affected me profoundly. But I see an unsurprising gap in this otherwise insightful analysis. Don Peck points out that industries dominated by women suffer less job loss, and he discusses extensively the negative psychological impact of extended unemployment on men, whose sense of masculinity is undermined by unemployment. But nowhere does he discuss the psychological consequences for women. It seems plausible to me that such consequences will be equally negative.

Because of women’s socialization, I think many women who, like me, are fortunate enough to have financial and professional stability experience a form of “survivor’s guilt” about our good fortune. This toxic sense of guilt informs women’s relationships, especially in marriages where women are the main or sole provider—creating an ancillary “provider’s guilt” that could have profound ramifications.

Simply, if extended unemployment creates an increase in domestic violence by men against women, as noted by the author, and also creates a phenomenon of “provider’s guilt” in abused women, is not a decrease in the reporting of domestic violence, and an increase in the number of women who remain in violent and abusive relationships, likely? If abused women feel partially responsible for their own abuse, due to a toxic sense of guilt, they are likely to take up the old adages of “It’s not his fault” and “He doesn’t really mean it.” The successes in recent decades in this area could be undermined, if the circumstances described by the author accurately reflect what is happening in today’s marriages because of joblessness.

Sabrina Bano Jamil
Assistant Professor of Philosophy
Miami Dade College
Miami, Fla.

I’d like to add two points to Don Peck’s well-researched article. First, he refers to research by Till von Wachter of Columbia University that says the graduates of elite universities will escape much of the suffering, but then he turns to Princeton Career Services Director Beverly Hamilton-Chandler’s observation that while hiring by major investment banks was down, recruiting by hedge funds and boutique financial firms partly offset that trend. One wonders if the hiring of some of our young people with the best computational skills by the financial industry that contributed so much to our current malaise is something to celebrate. We might also ask ourselves if general liberal-arts graduates from the same universities will be so lucky.

Secondly, the author seems to favor doing too much rather than too little with regard to government response. Maybe, but a case can be made that the problems we are confronting now and which he so powerfully defines are due at least in part to flawed public policies of the last generation that are coming home to roost. The government certainly has a role in the solution, but since it contributed to the problems, designing this solution will require great caution and more than a little humility.

Jim Blaisdell
Palm Desert, Calif.

I live in southern Ontario, and we are experiencing the same type of economic turmoil described by Don Peck. I immigrated to Canada from Italy in 1963. I started working when I was 12 years old and I worked all my life, until July 2009. Since then, I have not been able to find employment in my area of expertise. I attribute this to the recession and to my age (I am 54 years old). My skills are up to date, as I have always maintained my skillset by taking relevant courses at the local universities and colleges. As a result of my unemployment, I have lost everything of monetary value, including my house.

However, I still have my health and my family, and eventually things will have to turn around.

Vince Siciliano
Brampton, Ontario

Diagnosing Insurance

Perhaps Megan McArdle’s claim that everyone knows health insurance reduces mortality is merely her setup for the counterargument (“Myth Diagnosis,” March Atlantic). More likely, it’s a sign that we’ve swallowed the insurance industry’s hook. I don’t buy car insurance to protect myself from accidents. I don’t buy home insurance to protect myself from fires. I don’t buy life insurance to protect myself from death, and I don’t buy health insurance to protect myself from illness. I insure my car, home, life, and health to protect myself and my family from the financial risks associated with their loss.

At some point, probably when the industry repackaged “medical insurance” as “health insurance,” we accepted the implicit equivalence of insurance and health, magnifying the product’s market value and helping the industry to become yet another institution too big to fail.

Mary Rotella
Louisville, Ky.

I must take issue with Megan McArdle on several counts. First, an insurance policy is not an entitlement. Participants pay in, and only the unlucky (the sick) get a return on their investment.

Second, while a controlled study of the benefits—or lack thereof—of universal health-care insurance cannot be done here for ethical and financial reasons, a comparison of some statistics around the world is informative. Nearly all developed nations enjoy a longer life expectancy and a lower infant-mortality rate than the U.S., and they offer their citizens universal medical insurance, either government-sponsored, run by private companies, or operated cooperatively by the public and private sectors. Does this suggest a correlation?

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