Damn Lies

Economist/pundits, distanced from the harsh realities of the now official recession, talk of the rising numbers of unemployed as if there is no human cost to the “natural” business cycle. Worse, they act as public relations agents for capitalism; they lie by omission.

The big lie on National Public Radio (NPR) this morning (Dec. 3) came from the Brookings Institution during a brief report on unemployment benefits paid by states.

An economist from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) laid out the basic problem: unemployment insurance in almost all states is woefully inadequate to sustain people through times of unemployment, and very unequal from state to state (see the report).

But NPR, when it came to describing the cause of the inadequate safety net benefits, turned to a business-friendly Brookings Institution economist, who basically said this was because states want workers to look really hard to find work, implying that the problem of unemployment was the lazy workers who need to be motivated by scanty benefits to look for their next job.

Can he be serious?

Can anyone who has studied economy and politics not know that the inadequate safety net is a product of the owning class’ fear of losing control of the means of production? Most any CEO will admit that the all-encompassing value placed on work is necessary to produce wealth.

How can the Brookings economist not understand that the American work ethic is a mechanism of social control that ensures capitalists a reliable work force for making profits? At the risk of oversimplification, it is impossible.

If workers were provided with a federal social safety net that adequately protected them through unemployment, sickness, disability, and old age, then business would have less control over the workforce because labor would gain a stronger position from which to negotiate their conditions of employment, such as fair wages, safe working conditions and reasonable job accommodations.

As it is business lobbies see to it that their employees are forced to depend on little else but business for their welfare and that helps to make workers subservient to the needs of business. This is the central antagonism between labor and capital yet this relationship was not drawn out on NPR, a *public* radio station. The ineluctable power of business to dictate state policy was never mentioned.

Another steadily omitted reality is the compulsory unemployment of tens of thousands of would-be workers, including disabled persons. Over two thirds of disabled persons age 16-64 who are not employed say that they would prefer to be working, yet economists did not mention this group when they were boasting of a “full employment” economy a few months back.

Roughly two thirds of disabled persons are unemployed. As many as 8.3 million workers could be enlisted in the ranks of the unemployed and the labor force would expand by about 8%.

What economists dismiss is that capitalism has created a powerful class of persons dependent upon the productive labor of some and the exclusion of others. Business owners and Wall Street investors rely on the preservation of the status quo labor system (not having to absorb nonstandard costs disabled workers represent in the current mode of production or the reserve army of unemployed).

The US work-based/needs-based system is a socially legitimized means by which business and investors can economically discriminate and “morally” shift the cost of disabled workers onto poverty-based government benefit programs rather than be required to hire or retain the so-called “unemployables” as members of the mainstream workforce.

Consequently, tens of thousands of disabled individuals currently not in the workforce collecting SSDI or SSI who could work with an accommodation are not tallied into employers’ cost of doing business.

Business does not pay direct premiums for Social Security disability programs. (The cost of direct government and private payments to support disabled persons of employable age who do not have jobs is estimated to be $232 billion annually).

Instead disabled persons have no right to a job. Disability civil rights laws do not intervene in the labor market to mandate employment of disabled persons (not even to adhere to affirmative action, much less to a quota system like Germany’s), rather, these costs are shifted onto the shoulders of the working class and the low middle class who pay the majority of Social Security taxes while business and our economic system is absolved of responsibility.

I am not suggesting that benefits be dissolved. Under our economic system, employment discrimination is related to reliance on public aid: those who experience labor market discrimination are more likely to need public assistance, just as those who lose their jobs in this recession need adequate public assistance. And, a large segment of unemployed are relegated more or less to the ranks of permanent unemployed also deserving of adequate public assitance.

Still, the implications of an economic downturn are greatest for disabled persons whether one is seeking a job or already employed. The existence of an extremely tight labor market is generally a positive environment for previously unemployed populations to get a job. This is because a low supply of workers forces business to hire and train workers that they may not have been willing to hire or might have avoided at another point in the business cycle.

A recession, however, means that disabled workers who have a job may be laid off. Disabled workers are usually last in/first out. Economists Edward Yelin and Patricia Katz, for example, show that disabled individuals experienced proportionally larger gains during periods of labor market expansion than nondisabled individuals and suffer proportionally greater losses during times of contraction than their nondisabled counterparts.

Overall, persons with significant disabilities are hurt by negative changes in the economy evidenced by the fact that disability benefits claims rise during recessions. (Russell, in press 2002, “What Disability Civil Rights Cannot Do: Employment and Political Economy,” Disability & Society, Vol. 17)

For one, I would like to see Alan Greenspan and the economists at the Heritage and other think tank institutions all lose their jobs and have to rely on unemployment and the insultingly inadequate US “safety net” and the private charity that so many dote on as the solution to poverty.

Maybe they also need to acquire a disability, get fired from their job for failure to perform because their employer won’t accommodate them and be forced to apply for public disability benefits. Disability benefits hover at the official poverty level (for one is $8,350 (FY2000).

$759 is the average per month benefit that a disabled worker receives from SSDI and $373 is the average federal income for the needs-based Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

The annual income of over 10 million disabled persons on these programs is between $4,000 and $10,000 (the extremely low SSI benefit was set up for those with no work history or not enough quarters of work to qualify for SSDI; they are the least valued disabled members of society).

Let the pundits try to live off an unemployment or disability check. Let them stand in some breadlines for a change. Let them live with insufficient food, be forced to terminate their health insurance policies and have to stand in line at a county hospital when they get sick. Let them do without other necessities such as transportation, clothing, or utilities.

Could the privileged economists and pundits continue to act as apologists for the capitalist business cycle and meager checks then? Would they be so smug in their views to continue the omissions (lies) they get paid so well not to tell now?

Marta Russell can be reached at ap888@lafn.org www.disweb.org

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