Why don’t you just get a job?

Opponents of Occupy Wall Street are quick to lob the time-tested jeer “why don’t you just get a job?” at protesters. Of course, this jeer is not based on any kind of economic sophistication. It is just the cliche used when someone has nothing intelligent to say. This taunt continues to flood still-confused media reports about Occupy Wall Street and is shouted — in one form or another — at occupiers during marches or at campsites.

The sheer amount of ignorance required to utter such a thing is astounding. I am very confident that a reasoned explanation will not convince someone so ignorant to say that to change their mind, but let’s try anyways.

For those who do not realize this, our economic situation is really bad. In late 2007, we had a massive recession caused by the collapsing of a housing asset bubble that was driven by a mixture of bank incompetence, greed, and outright malice in some cases (e.g. Goldman Sachs). Trillions of dollars of imagined housing wealth disappeared as the bubble collapsed which wreaked havoc on credit markets, business and consumer confidence, aggregate demand, and so on. This was not good for employment:

The official unemployment rate shot up to higher than 10%, but has inched down to 9.1% since. This official rate is misleading however. If you count those working part-time jobs but who want full-time jobs and those who have become so discouraged that they have stopped looking for jobs at all, the rate jumps to around 17%. Even on the 9.1% unemployment rate, we have 6 million more unemployed people now than we did on the eve of the recession. I guess 6 million people were stricken with chronic laziness overnight. Or you know, maybe there aren’t any jobs. If only we had empirical data to help us figure out whether sudden laziness or scarce job openings is the problem. Oh that’s right, we do:

The red line introduced there is the number of job openings. We have around 5 unemployed persons per job opening (remember that this does not include those involuntarily working part-time or those who have stopped looking). Even the math-impaired should realize that the reason protesters and the unemployed do not “just get a job” is because they can’t. And the reason they can’t has everything to do with what Wall Street did to the economy, as explained above.

To close this out, I think it is necessary to also point out that the unemployment rate of 16-24 year olds is 18.1 percent, double the overall unemployment rate. Is it any wonder that so many young people have jumped to get involved in the Occupy movement? They cannot just “get a job.” There aren’t any to be gotten.

Conservative claims about stimulus are wrong

The debate about the stimulus was fairly vacuous from the very start. Pundits with apparently little understanding — or worse an agenda to misrepresent things — would chime in on whether it worked. Of course, posing the question in terms of working or not working is already massively confused. Any serious discussion on the stimulus would center on the impact it had.

The Congressional Budget Office put out another report this week estimating the impact of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in the last quarter. The CBO estimates that in the second quarter of 2011, the stimulus increased real GDP by 0.8-2.5 percent, lowered the unemployment rate by 0.5-1.6 percent, and increased employment by 1.0-2.9 million people. There are of course other academic studies on the stimulus, the majority of which — as you would expect — point to some positive impact of the stimulus.

Conservative commentators deny this reality with predictably weak and undeveloped arguments. Admittedly, it may not be worthwhile to even engage the mainstream conservative pundits because they are almost certainly not arguing in good faith. Nonetheless, one thing that consistently pops up in their talking points is that the stimulus “did not work.” What is meant by this is somewhat unclear. At times, it appears that because unemployment continued to rise after the stimulus, they take that to be proof that it did not have a positive impact.

This sort of point is just analytically confused. The proper way to measure the impact — as the above studies do — is to estimate what would have occurred without the stimulus and what did occur with the stimulus. If unemployment would have risen by 3 percent due to the state of the economy, but only rose 2 percent with the stimulus, then any serious analysis counts that as a positive.

Other conservatives seem to take the question of whether it “worked” a bit too seriously, believing that the analysis called for in the case of the stimulus is truly binary. This of course is false. Decreasing umemployment by 3 percent is better than decreasing it by 2 percent which is better than decreasing it by 1 percent or not at all. There is no point at which one would say it worked or did not work; there is only bigger and smaller impacts.

What is odd about the conservative framing of this issue is that it is unnecessarily extreme. I realize from a public relations point that it is probably more compelling to send out messaging that talks about the stimulus having no impact or a negative impact. But given that it is undeniable that it had some positive impact relative to the counterfactual world in which no stimulus occurred, any serious right-wing critiques would focus on the trade-offs of the stimulus. Was 700 billion dollars of debt worth a 1 million jobs, a couple of percentage points for the GDP, and a slightly lower unemployment rate?

Debates could certainly be had on that front. But instead of taking that more honest approach to critiquing the stimulus, the right wing messaging continues to make claims that are demonstrably untrue. In a more informed society with better media outlets that sought truth instead of artificial balance and sensationalism, these misrepresentations and lies about the effects of the stimulus might harm the right wing. But in our present world of public relations dominated politics, they almost certainly do the opposite.

That is not to say that the stimulus was all that great. As most Keynesian economists at the time were pointing out, the size of it was far smaller than it should have been for the impact it was trying to achieve. Providing a Keynesian boost to aggregate demand that is half the size it should have been is kind of a strange policy. At the time, defenders of the administration remarked that the small size was not a problem because there was nothing limiting the injection of more stimulus later — a reassurance that has proven politically misguided.

With that said, as much as the left has rightly harangued the administration’s too weak stimulus policy, right wing commentators still manage to make their position on the stimulus even sillier. The reality is that the stimulus — whether it was too small or too expensive — has had a slight positive impact, all the hand-waiving, contrary assertions of the right wing notwithstanding.