One of the things I tell college and grad students studying social science whenever I have the chance is that the most important class you can take is the one in research methods. It's usually taught by someone who doesn't really want to teach it, and it's usually pretty boring, but what you learn there gives you some vital skills. Among other things, it teaches you which questions are important to ask, and how to go about answering them.
I raise this because yesterday, Jon Chait linked to Kevin Drum discussing a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Arthur Laffer, whom you might recall as the man who convinced Ronald Reagan to believe in the tax fairy, the idea that cutting taxes increases tax revenue. Even though the op-ed is a week old, it's worth taking note of, both because of the new Republican assault on the unemployed, and for what it says about our current state of political debate.
Laffer's argument is that increasing unemployment benefits causes unemployment to rise. Yes, you read that right. The column is filled with so many howlers that it wouldn't get a passing grade in a freshman economics class. It's even got a chart showing two lines, one with unemployment benefits, and one with unemployment, to show that they seem to move in tandem!
In the first week of that freshman research methods class, students learn about causality -- how to determine it, how to know when you can't determine it, and how to figure out when people are making unsupported claims about it. The first thing you learn about causality is that the cause has to precede the effect in time. If A happens before B, B can't be the cause of A. So when unemployment goes up, and then benefits are increased, the benefits can't be the cause of the unemployment.
Saying that increasing benefits causes unemployment is like saying that the presence of oil-catching booms causes oil spills, or that rain is caused by people carrying umbrellas.
Granted, Laffer is arguing a purer form of the argument being made by an increasing number of Republicans. Those politicians are now saying that extending unemployment benefits would make people lazy, as they live large on that $300 a week and don't bother to go get a job. But that assumes, of course, that there are jobs just waiting for them, if only they'd get off their butts.
In other words, the economic fantasyland Republicans are living in isn't made up only of invented macroeconomic ideas, like "cutting taxes raises revenue," but also of invented ideas about people's lives. They actually seem to believe that employers are putting out help-wanted ads, and no one is applying because everyone who doesn't have a job is a lazy bum.
Democrats are now pointing out that Republicans don't want to extend unemployment benefits but do want to extend tax cuts for the wealthy. They're hoping this argument will be compelling and persuasive. You'd think that in the worst economy since the Depression, voters would see a party arguing that people who can't find work are lazy and be gripped by an urge to punch that party's leaders in the face. But if the past is any guide, the GOP won't pay much of a price for their Scrooge McDuck approach to economics. If nothing else, at least they're not pretending to be on the side of the little guy anymore.
-- Paul Waldman
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