The Fear Economy

1/6/14
 
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by Paul Krugman,

from The New York Times,
12/26/13:

More than a million unemployed Americans are about to get the cruelest of Christmas “gifts.” They’re about to have their unemployment benefits cut off. You see, Republicans in Congress insist that if you haven’t found a job after months of searching, it must be because you aren’t trying hard enough. So you need an extra incentive in the form of sheer desperation.

As a result, the plight of the unemployed, already terrible, is about to get even worse. Obviously those who have jobs are much better off. Yet the continuing weakness of the labor market takes a toll on them, too. So let’s talk a bit about the plight of the employed.

Some people would have you believe that employment relations are just like any other market transaction; workers have something to sell, employers want to buy what they offer, and they simply make a deal. But anyone who has ever held a job in the real world — or, for that matter, seen a Dilbert cartoon — knows that it’s not like that.

The fact is that employment generally involves a power relationship: you have a boss, who tells you what to do, and if you refuse, you may be fired. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing. If employers value their workers, they won’t make unreasonable demands. But it’s not a simple transaction. There’s a country music classic titled “Take This Job and Shove It.”

So employment is a power relationship, and high unemployment has greatly weakened workers’ already weak position in that relationship.

When the economy is strong, workers are empowered. They can leave if they’re unhappy with the way they’re being treated and know that they can quickly find a new job if they are let go. When the economy is weak, however, workers have a very weak hand, and employers are in a position to work them harder, pay them less, or both.

Is there any evidence that this is happening? And how. The economic recovery has, as I said, been weak and inadequate, but all the burden of that weakness is being borne by workers. Corporate profits plunged during the financial crisis, but quickly bounced back, and they continued to soar. Indeed, at this point, after-tax profits are more than 60 percent higher than they were in 2007, before the recession began. We don’t know how much of this profit surge can be explained by the fear factor — the ability to squeeze workers who know that they have no place to go. But it must be at least part of the explanation. In fact, it’s possible (although by no means certain) that corporate interests are actually doing better in a somewhat depressed economy than they would if we had full employment.

What’s more, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to suggest that this reality helps explain why our political system has turned its backs on the unemployed.

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