The Billings Outpost

Congress beginning to notice unemployed



I note with interest recent signs of congressional concern over the fate of the estimated 1.3 million long-term unemployed, who saw their benefit checks abruptly cut off Dec. 28. This alleged concern is instructive, perhaps more for what it reveals about politics and the economy than anything else, although the issue is also being teed up as part of the ongoing partisan grudge match in this mid-term election year.

Exhibit A is how President Obama continues to bring up the long-term unemployed every chance he gets. He focused on these folks during a White House speech on Jan. 7, the same day the U.S. Senate voted to debate extending benefits for three months, a proposal carrying an estimated price tag of $6.5 billion.

“The long-term unemployed are not lazy, they’re not lacking in motivation, they’re coping with the aftermath of the worst economic crisis in generations,” Obama said. “It’s hard out there. A lot of our friends, our neighbors, have lost their jobs and they are working their tails off every single day.”

Others are focusing on all the money not being circulated throughout the U.S. economy by the people who are no longer receiving their unemployment checks. Some estimates put the amount being lost at $1 billion each week. And these unemployment checks for the long-term unemployed aren’t even that much. We’re talking about $300 per week on average, which isn’t enough to cover a mortgage or rent plus pay utility bills and put food on the table.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress are talking about how to pay for the short-term benefits extension and say that they won’t support an extension without a plan to cover the cost and to create jobs. Some of these same people blithely approve mega-zillions for vaguely defined military programs and/or don’t believe government can or should create jobs, so it’s wise to take such bluster with about 10 pounds of salt.

Democrats aren’t doing a whole lot about it either besides waiting to see how much the voters care and how much they can pin blame for inaction on the other side of the aisle. They want to back the president by pointing to a slow but steady improvement in the economy, and they’d really like to shift the focus away from continuing problems with the Affordable Care Act (aka, “Obamacare”).

Unemployment is a much larger and symptomatic issue than the latest partisan political skirmishes would indicate. For a good overall view of why it’s so important, see Brad Plumer’s Jan. 7 discussion on the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, where he explains the context and why it’s impacting our economy so deeply. This ongoing problem isn’t going to be easily solved, especially by short-term spending.

Among other depressing facts, Plumer notes that long-term unemployment in this country is still as high as it’s ever been since World War II, and that 4 million people from all types of occupational backgrounds have been out of work for 27 weeks or longer. Data show that those who have been without a job for that long or longer have just a 12 percent chance of finding a new one, and that there are nearly three unemployed people out there looking for work for every available job opening.

Besides the personal economic toll that long-term unemployment takes on people, Plumer notes there are less-tangible but far-reaching effects on physical and mental health and a negative domino effect on self-esteem, family relationships and other social interactions. We all pay for this grim scenario, directly or indirectly.

Trade deal

U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., isn’t going to be in the Senate much longer, but he’s using whatever time he has left there to help fast-track the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), yet another chapter in the ongoing saga of increasing corporate economic and political domination.

On Jan. 9, Baucus was the lone Democrat sponsoring TPP fast-track legislation, along with U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and U.S. Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich.). President Obama backs the TPP, which is also supported by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and U.S. corporations that do business overseas.

If U.S. proposals for the TPP are successful, the deal would, for the first time ever, allow foreign corporations to challenge a country’s laws or regulations in a privately run international court, a power currently reserved for sovereign nations. Other U.S. proposals in the works would allow pharmaceutical companies long-term monopolies on new drugs and hamper government health services from negotiating lower drug prices with such companies. Another U.S. proposal would limit foreign governments from using “capital controls” to avoid banking crises.

It’s hard to get details on exactly what proposals are being considered under the TPP because talks held since 2010 among trade representatives of the involved nations are classified and not even members of Congress or their staffers are being kept informed. In fact, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who will replace Baucus as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, reportedly hadn’t even seen the TPP fast-track legislation before it was introduced last week.

Leaked documents have indicated nearly unanimous opposition from other negotiating countries to most American proposals under the TPP, which has clearly delayed progress of the trade pact. One leaked memo noted that only the U.S. and Japan supported most of the American proposals and that the “United States shows zero flexibility.”

Ironically, the same can be said of the Baucus fast-track bill since it would give the president the power to present TPP and other trade deals to Congress that could not be amended and would require an up-or-down vote.

Quote of the week

“As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems.”

– Pope Francis, in his “Evangelii Gadium” or “Joy of the Gospel,” November.

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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