GALL

Posted in Rants on July 14th, 2010 by Ed

Chris Matthews is barely tolerable, but if your stomach feels strong today this six minute Hardball clip is interesting viewing. Matthews sits between a Heritage Foundation drone (appropriately named, as you will see, James Sherk) and an absolutely incoherent liberal d-bag as they debate unemployment.

Having already insulted him, I have to give Mr. Sherk a little bit of credit. He did as well as possible with an argument that inspires absolutely no sympathy. He refers to published studies and evidence more than the typical right-wing talking head, keeps his temper, and comes off as something better than Satan's butt boy. That's more than most of the Heritage/Cato/PNAC bobbleheads manage. In particular I think one aspect of his argument has merit: unemployed people may – although do not necessarily – limit their job search to jobs they consider "good enough" for them.

There is some truth to this, although there's no reasonable way to measure it. If I became unemployed, I would not start sending out applications to Burger King. I'd likely say "I have a goddamn Ph.D., and in light of the 20 f'n years it took me to obtain it I am going to hold out for a job that puts it to use." In other words, Sherk is correct in one respect. The availability of unemployment benefits (assuming I qualified by being laid off) would keep me from taking "any old job." If I had six months of benefits, I would look for an academic job for six months. When it ran out and the next step was eviction, then I'd swallow pride and see if Wal-Mart needs a cart wrangler. I don't think I'm exceptional in this regard. The world's lawyers and MBAs and accountants aren't likely to start delivering pizzas the moment they lose their jobs.

Where the wheels fall off (circa minute 4 in the video) the argument is the proposed solution. It's so ridiculous that Matthews' laughter obscures about 30 seconds of the exchange. If you can't watch the video, Sherk brings back Ronald Reagan's favorite remedy: telling out-of-work people that they need to move where the jobs are. Let's briefly overlook the bleedingly obvious impracticality of such advice (as if unemployed people can afford a cross country move) and look at the more troubling implication.

Sherk makes a big mistake by combining this remedy with the argument he's presenting here. Note that he is not saying people should move to Nebraska (his example) to get equivalent jobs – teachers getting laid off in Ohio and finding teaching jobs in Omaha. He is arguing both that people should take whatever job is available AND they should be willing to move to do it. So, as Matthews guffaws, when an Applebee's opens up in Denton, Texas unemployed people in New York City should be willing to move there for the job.

And this is why he ends up looking like such an ass. Not only is it depressing to think that we've come to this as a nation, but how does anyone work up the gumption to tell people, either in person, on TV, or in Heritage Foundation white papers, that this is the course of action they need to follow? How can a six-figure foundation fellow in the Beltway say with a straight face that people need to start moving across the country for minimum wage jobs?

I guess it's pretty easy to do this, apparently, given how common it is becoming. I generally do not subscribe to the empathy fallacy, the argument that a person needs to experience someone else's life to intelligently comment on it. In my field, for example, it's not well-received when white people do research on black or Latino politics. Even among people smart enough to know better there is a "What can you really know about black voting behavior?" attitude. This is patently ridiculous. My point with this example is that I don't believe that the media or politicians need to be minimum wage peasants in order to understand us little people. Any reasonably thoughtful person, even the millionaires in the Senate, can understand the problems that unemployed and/or low-income people face if he or she is willing to sit down and think about it.

The problem, I suppose, is that part about being thoughtful and willing to think because the Beltway elites are getting unreasonably comfortable giving edicts to those of us in the lower castes, edicts that belie their privileged status and ignorance of what life is like for the bottom 99%. Whether it's Mika Brzezinski (born into the political elite, and I can only assume embarrassing the hell out of her father) telling the little people that they need to "get used to" having Social Security cut or Congressmen turned gubernatorial candidates claiming that government needs to tighten the screws on food service income because waiters are making $100,000, haughty politicos and pundits with six- (or seven-) figure incomes really shouldn't be telling us what kinds of sacrifices we should be happy to make.

Mika Brzezinski doesn't give a shit if SS is cut because she can fund her own retirement 10 times over. Tom Emmer has no idea what a waiter makes (in Minnesota, apparently the average for full timers is under $19,000) because he hasn't had a real job in 20+ years. These facts being true of almost every elected official and media celebrity, why can none of them draw the conclusion that discretion is the better part of valor? "Maybe I shouldn't lecture people who depend on SS about why they should get used to cuts so that my income bracket doesn't have to pay more in taxes." "Maybe someone who makes $200,000 per year on the books as a Congressman shouldn't go after people who serve coffee to stoners at Denny's for minimum wage." "Maybe as a 'fellow' who makes six figures to sit on my ass at a wingnut welfare foundation and occasionally to babble on TV shouldn't be telling unemployed professionals that they need to suck it up and work at Chik-fil-A."

These are all entirely reasonable thoughts that, with a minimum of introspection, a reasonable person might conclude. Unfortunately the wealthy, the elite, and the conservative – and often the three overlap – lack shame and believe that it is their god-given right to lecture people who aren't as wonderful as them, dispensing advice that they would never follow. "My advice is for the little people – I'm different" used to be the kind of argument that would force a public figure to start keeping the company of bodyguards. Now we've relabeled it "common sense" and it is one of the many weapons wielded by the half of the working class who think they will benefit if they kill the other half as ordered.