John Oliver on how badly the US handles unemployment

Losing one’s job is not only a traumatic experience, it often leads to a cascade of disasters such as losing one’s home. Unemployment insurance is meant to tide people over until they find another job. But some political leaders, especially Republicans, seem to view it as a reward for lazy people. He describes how hard it is for people to get unemployment benefits and how some states like Florida cut the premiums that companies are supposed to put into the unemployment fund and then go out of their way to make things difficult for people to apply for relief.


  1. robert79 says

    I didn’t know about the $1 yielding $2 of economic value thing.

    This further strengthens my belief that a universal income is a good thing. Just give everyone $X a month.

    It’s actually a small government measure, since you no longer need the *HUGE* bureaucratic apparatus of checking if people actually “deserve” that cash. (Okay… so a lot of bureaucrats will need unemployment now…) And obviously, for the higher incomes… they get $X and pay an additional $X or more in taxes.

    You could even get rid of minimum wage, let universal income cover that, then if employers want to pay you 10c a month but people don’t desperately need it, I’m sure the free market will sort things out.

  2. komarov says

    Re: Robert79

    Add to that some actual factual taxation of rich people and corporations and you’d end up with a sustainable system that activiely redistributes wealth, primarily by (gently) draining it from deep money wells which will never ever move otherwise, let alone stimulate anything.
    But of course that must never be allowed to happen. Before long it would lead to rampant socialism -- less poverty, other reforms and much worse. Soon after, Lenin will shuffle out of his mausoleum, cackling madly, and lord over all of us, a communist hell on Earth.

  3. consciousness razor says

    Federal jobs guarantee.

    (Also, M4A, regular minimum wage increases, and lower the age for full SS retirement benefits, instead of raising them as we’ve already done for everyone born after 1955-1960. By the way, please, if we’re going to do any other sort of payments/checks, that is exactly what the SSA is for and what it does every day. Treating everything like a “tax credit” to be administered by the IRS is really dumb and counterproductive.)

    Regarding the jobs guarantee…. State and local governments can apply for the federal funding to hire people for whatever jobs they need done, but the point is that (1) there is more than enough to do in this country and (2) lots of people want a decent job.

    On top of that, there aren’t enough federal employees, probably every agency could benefit from hiring more people. (But at the same time, we can be picky and decide to make cuts to for example police forces, the military, DHS, ICE, etc.) To give you a rough idea, some data about the federal workforce here and here; population figures from here…. The 1966 population was about 201.9 million, and in 2014 (when there it dropped to be slightly fewer federal employees), the population was 318.7 million, meaning it went up by 57.9% while the number of federal employees remained stagnant.

    Anyway, as I see it, our unemployment systems (plural) are a total mess. They are invariably designed to make it difficult simply for a person to receive less than they did while employed, if they’re able to get any help at all.

  4. Sam N says

    @4 CR, you give plenty of great reasons to support a federal jobs guarantee. And I find it to be a massive, credible improvement to the current mess. I would like to know why you favor that over UBI, though?

    I could still see massive numbers of people being extorted into doing work they find unconscionable or in conditions in which they are threatened or abused. What I like about UBI is we could no longer take labor such as a grocery worker for granted. They would have the power to not be abused and threatened by their bosses because they will have the money required for basic necessities if they quit. They would have to be treated with, gasp, respect.

    Also UBI would help reduce the injustice of so much unpaid labor out there.

    I think it would be a much more disruptive scheme than a federal jobs guarantee in the short and long term, but I like that feature of UBI.

  5. consciousness razor says

    I would like to know why you favor that over UBI, though?

    Because there is lots of work to be done which we’ve been neglecting. For example: you could hire people build free public housing for the homeless. You will not get that sort of thing to happen with people merely receiving a check in the mail, because then the money is just floating around in the private economy, which generally means it floats upward (to the rich) and not downward.

    I could still see massive numbers of people being extorted into doing work they find unconscionable or in conditions in which they are threatened or abused.

    Huh? It’s a program that guarantees jobs, not one which forces a job on somebody who doesn’t want it. And of course, we should still have lots of programs aimed at supporting people who are retired, disabled, pregnant women, children, and others who can’t work. The idea is to patch up certain large holes in our system and not to replace other welfare programs.

    They would have the power to not be abused and threatened by their bosses because they will have the money required for basic necessities if they quit. They would have to be treated with, gasp, respect.

    No, they could still be abused and threatened by their bosses. What you’re saying is that they could quit after such threats/abuse do in fact occur.

    Such people should be worried about serious legal consequences, which is a lot more than simply having an employee quit and pretend like it never happened (because they may be able to afford it, although it’s also true that they may not).

    Also UBI would help reduce the injustice of so much unpaid labor out there.

    No, it wouldn’t. If Bezos makes millions of dollars per hour and his workers make $0.1 per month (as robert79 suggested), then a UBI which goes to both Bezos and the workers (because otherwise it isn’t a universal basic income) isn’t going to change that. It may mean that you (not necessarily me or anyone else) are slightly less interested in revolting against this oppressive system, but that’s not because the “new and improved” version now has more justice in it.

  6. consciousness razor says

    But let me say this: during the pandemic, a regular UBI would’ve been great. We didn’t want people going to work, because we wanted to stop the spread, so they could be paid not to go to work. Simple. Other than hiring some people to help with the healthcare system and testing and whatnot, there’s no reason to put other such projects ahead of stopping the pandemic for that relatively short period of time. And then, you really do shut practically everything down across the country (not what we actually did), because you’ve made it possible for people to make it through that relatively unharmed. Other stuff like debt forgiveness (for rents, mortgages, etc.) is important too, but a bunch of simple payments would’ve been much better than the half-assed shit that we tried involving extended unemployment and so forth.

  7. Sam N says

    @6, I appreciate the thoughts and reply.

    The line by line criticism will be useful to explain myself more clearly. I was using a lot of loaded terms, and see how easily my thoughts can be misconstrued (in several cases, very much my own fault).

    It seems like the main advantage you see is that we have a ton of work that would massively improve people’s lives and needs to get done. We have massive numbers of people looking for meaningful, well-paid work. So, let’s start paying people to do it by directing that labor through a federal program.

    UBI, on the other hand might result in important labor never getting done, or if it does, at a premium, where a large cut of the money gets drawn to the most wealthy instead of going to the people who actually get things done.

    Is that a fair sum up of why you favor one over the other? I’m aiming for succinctness. Or did I miss something else that’s very important?

    @7, absolutely.

  8. consciousness razor says

    Is that a fair sum up of why you favor one over the other? I’m aiming for succinctness. Or did I miss something else that’s very important?

    Another more MMT-flavored reason: the jobs guarantee is helping to make use of productive capacity that remains unused or underutilized by the private sector (sometimes for very good reason, because many things shouldn’t be privatized). We can and should address that. That’s the other big part of it, in addition to having lots of work that needs to be done.

    However, capitalists like things this way, because it means workers will be competing for too few jobs (in addition to profiting from the labor of those who do get employed), because of course we’ve let them control all of the jobs rather than make more for ourselves…. Now, it’s worth mentioning that with either a UBI or a jobs guarantee, we’re not ending capitalism or whatever, so either way we still have to worry about what kind of a mess capitalists would make of it. But I do think making social programs which genuinely increase the size/scope of the public sector, which is politically under our control and accountable to our society as a whole, is moving in the right direction.

    Anyway, with a jobs program, the end result is that this sort of spending can help to keep inflation in check. That’s definitely not a feature of the UBI, which is literally just pumping out dollars (most of which will probably end up in the hands of people like Bezos) and that’s it, nothing else … even while we have a constrictive population pyramid in the US, which doesn’t sound like this situation could remain stable for very long.

    You can just say “raise taxes on the rich” to take some of that money back out of the economy, which at least is doing something. But I think they should be raised primarily because being so rich gives them too much political and economic power. We should do it because we should have that power for ourselves. But taxing them in order to fight inflation won’t be terribly effective in that respect, because they’re a small population and what money they do spend (mostly on useless shit) isn’t doing much to drive prices up for ordinary people who are buying ordinary and genuinely useful stuff. (Meanwhile, I’m not worried if the price goes up for private jets or whatever. If it does, no big deal.)

    So, then we have to put more of the tax burden on people lower down on the ladder, which might at least be a little better than the inflation that they’ll also have to deal with…. Still, I’m no expert, but that’s pretty much where I get off the train. I just don’t understand why we’d do that, while also not aiming for full employment, as well as not doing a lot of public works that need to be done anyway. All that just for some measly checks? Because you think Yang is a cool dude? Or why? I just don’t understand what the selling points are supposed to be, if we’re pitting one program against the other.

  9. consciousness razor says

    I know that wasn’t very succinct. So here’s an attempt: inflation. One helps to counteract it somewhat. The other definitely only makes it a bigger problem, which will presumably mean a higher tax burden on non-rich people which defeats the purpose of giving many of them the money in the first place, and it also doesn’t let you have the stuff that you wanted done.

  10. Sam N says

    A fair point that the two do not need to be pitted against each other. They both presently feel like pipe dreams.

    I was into UBI far before I knew about Yang.

    The main appeal about UBI to me is to see what people would do with it. I just want to see the creativity.

    I’d immediately be aiming to create a cooperative to drive down expenses, and then fund some weird interesting art, or science labs. It just opens up the possibilities.

    There’s this pervasive belief that people are naturally lazy, and while there is some truth to that, it’s rather limited in my experience.

    The people I hang out with may not be the usual birds. But if someone mentions a constructive idea, we tend to recruit fairly well. And we do this stuff for no compensation. Back when I was a neuroscientist I’d set up demos for the public, just for the pure joy of it. I volunteered to help reforest parts of Guatemala because it was an interesting experience and sweating and laughing feel good. There’s a lot of positivity in some of these volunteer movements that make work an actual pleasure. I believe people are generally creative and industrious when not cowed into submission and treated without respect. Maybe I’m overly idealistic.

    UBI excites my imagination in ways that a federal jobs guarantee doesn’t. Although, bridges, housing, community centers, roads, public classes, libraries are all really cool things, too.

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