March 9, 2010

Letter to the Editor: Not the moral high ground

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To the Editor:

Re: “A Vital Helping Hand,” Opinion, March 9

I am not writing in defense of Tom Delay. But the March 9 column, “A Vital Helping Hand,” is far more off-base than Delay was in his remarks regarding unemployment insurance.

The basic problem with the author’s condemnation — no, straight trashing — of Delay’s remarks is this: Rather than focusing on the content of the actual argument, he attempts to stake out some sort of moral high ground by making grand negative assumptions regarding the worldview of his opposition.

You don’t need to be a “reputable economist” (of the sort that so accurately predicted the current economic crisis and have been unbelievably spot-on in forecasting the “recovery”) to understand Delay’s basic point. Boiled down, he’s saying that if some entity (be it an individual, corporation, government or otherwise) subsidizes some good, you will get more people purchasing more of that good than you would if it were not subsidized. For example, if I stand in front of the bar at Ruloff’s and tell everyone ordering that I’ll pay them $2 to order a pitcher of Bud Light, Ruloff’s will sell more Bud Light than they would have if I wasn’t standing there subsidizing people’s Bud Light-induced drunkenness. Similarly, if I offer people $293 a week to remain unemployed, more people will remain unemployed than they would have were that offer not in place. To argue against this is to argue that you honestly believe Ruloff’s will sell no more Bud Light were I paying people $2 per pitcher to purchase it. Give it a try if you really don’t believe me.

The author casually asserts that in order to endorse Delay’s simple argument, you need to believe that “poor people are poor because they’re lazy” and that “the unemployed are unemployed because they choose to be.” Now, I may be crazy, but when I look at the example regarding Ruloff’s and Bud Light drinkers, it doesn’t seem to infer nearly that much about these subsidized beer drinkers. In fact, the only thing you need to assume about these people is probably the most universal law in all of economics: that the cheaper a good is, the more of that good people are willing to purchase. There, folks, is your downwards-sloping demand curve. By subsidizing the purchase of Bud Light pitchers at Ruloffs, I am making those pitchers — the good in question — cheaper, and therefore more people want to buy pitchers of Bud Light at Ruloff’s. Again, notice that this is all one needs to infer about people; we don’t need to know anything about their personal qualities or their needs, wants and desires. It matters not one bit whether the people in question are lazy drunks, overly studious engineering students or Hotelie socialites.

Why, then, is it so difficult to extend that reasoning to the case of unemployment insurance? If the government subsidizes unemployment (by paying unemployed people), the only thing we need to assume about those people is that their desire to be unemployed will increase as the cost of unemployment drops. Conversely, we can say that their desire to be employed decreases as the opportunity cost of being employed increases (as it does when unemployment is subsidized). We don’t need to assume that people are lazy, that all unemployed people choose to be unemployed or that everyone endorsing simple, logical economic arguments such as this one are doing so to justify their “ignorance of the plight of millions of innocent people.”

I would love to read an actual refutation of my above argument, but the author’s column, if anything, endorses it. He writes that studies have shown “that people tend to be unemployed longer when they receive unemployment benefits” and that such a result could either be because people are “lazy” or “it could be because people are willing to hold out for a better paying job that more closely matches their skill set when they know they won’t starve as a consequence.” How, may I ask, does that not “suggest that unemployment benefits discourage people from looking for jobs?”

I cannot come close to making an entire case for the eventual, gradual elimination of unemployment insurance in the space of an 800-word letter, but I’m tired of people assuming that those who disagree with them have different morals and different goals in mind. For the most part, people against unemployment insurance aren’t immoral tools trying to justify their ignorance of starving people, but instead I believe that without it we’d have less unemployment and far more private charitable giving, leading ultimately to greater prosperity. If you disagree, great: present an argument showing that eliminating unemployment insurance wouldn’t lead to these shared goals. But don’t casually assert your own supposed moral superiority as grounds for dismissal of an opposing argument.

Casey Worthing ’10