Blaming Unemployment on “Unemployees”

The President’s proposed jobs plan contains a provision that would bar employers from saying no currently unemployed people need apply for their jobs. Hit & Run’s Tim Cavanaugh doesn’t like it. He objects to creating a “new protected class” and thinks that barring employers from putting a no-jobless proviso in their job ads raises “First Amendment Issues” (the same ones raised, I suppose, by the current prohibition on housing ads that say “no Blacks, please”?).

What struck me more than Cavanaugh’s (predictable) opposition to the proposal is the “exhortation” he applies to those who’ve been without work for ages:

Do any work you can, even if it’s day labor, rather than building a personal brand as an unemployee.

“Personal brand as an unemployee.” Lovely. I’m sure that all the people out there who lack work have made just this mistake. They considered cultivating a reputation for being employed but instead made the boneheaded decision to “build a personal brand” around joblessness instead. And this is profound advice in general: if you’re unemployed and want employers to stop discriminating against you in job searches, make sure you have a job before you start searching.

It turns out that Cavanaugh has used the term “unemployee” before, at least twice. The first two times he was saying, arguably, that deliberately building a media reputation around your own unemployment is counterproductive (“is ‘unemployee’ a career path?“)—a criticism which, while potentially valid, can logically apply only to about three people who have publicly sought out roles as spokespeople for the unemployed rather than merely being, say, unemployed. Even in those posts he couldn’t help suggesting that the problem facing unemployed people in general is that they’d rather complain publicly about their lack of work than seek work. In the second of his posts he suggests that the few spokespeople he cites represent a “much larger universe of unemployees: non-workers who have evolved careers as subjects of news stories about long-term unemployment.” One might how large that universe in fact is. Just large enough, it seems (N=at least 3) to make Cavanaugh feel much better about mocking, rather than supporting, government efforts to boost demand.

“Unemployee” is surely one of the ugliest neologisms to appear in some time. It reminds me of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, in which handmaids who can’t bear live children—never mind that it’s often the more powerful men they serve who are infertile—are labeled “unwoman” and sent off to labor, if I recall, mining radioactive materials.

Writes Cavanaugh,

[I]t’s common sense that ending your own unemployment is the first step toward addressing the unemployment problem.

Unlike Cavanaugh, I think the average long-term unemployed person has, in fact, tried just a few times to take that first step. Perhaps the unemployed are even smart enough to have thought of it themselves. Cavanaugh might in turn pause to think about whether he’s proud of branding the unemployed with a red-hot, vicious label and then blaming them for seeking out the brand.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl is a Visiting Professor in the Program on Ethics, Politics, and Economics and in Political Science at Yale University.