Working For the Clampdown

I’ve already noted today that a tiny uptick (which looks worse thanks to rounding-up) in the unemployment rate in July will give conservatives the talking point they need to ignore the surprisingly strong new jobs numbers. But even as most progressives dismiss the significance of the unemployment figures, Jon Chait raises a point we dare not forget: U.S. elites are exhibiting a dangerous tolerance for persistent high unemployment:

In the years since the collapse of 2008, the existence of mass unemployment has stopped being something the economic powers that be even pretend to regard as a crisis. To those directly impacted, the economic crisis is an emergency, a life-altering disaster the damage from which will endure for years. But most of those in a position to address it simply have not seen it in such terms. History will record that the economic elite has viewed the economic crisis from a perspective of detached complacency.

Two events from the last week have underscored this disturbing reality. The most widely covered was the Federal Reserve’s announcement that, despite a weakening economy, it still would not take steps to stimulate growth. The Fed may not like mass unemployment, but it dislikes inflation even more, and in its calculus, the hypothetical prospect of the latter outweighs the immediate reality of the former.

Here’s a second case, smaller but even more telling. The Obama administration has tried to prevail upon Edward DeMarco, the acting director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, to offer lower mortgage rates to underwater home owners through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which he controls. What interests me is not the proposal itself, nor even DeMarco’s obstinate refusal, but an editorial in the Washington Post applauding DeMarco for refusing to implement the program.

I’d add to Jon’s argument another oft-forgotten aspect of the split between elite perceptions of the economy and those of regular folk: even if you are lucky enough to have a job, it is the very common habit of employers to exploit periods of high unemployment by treating their employees badly on a broad range of everyday issues. Want a raise? Look for it somewhere else if you can. Your immediate supervisor is breaking all the rules at your expense? Better hope you have a union.

This practice of utilizing and then systematically increasing job insecurity affects many millions of people–but not so much high-level managers and professionals. And it is reflected more broadly in the economic meta-message to working people of the conservative movement and the GOP: stop your grousing about the wealthy and their privileges and consider yourself lucky to get a paycheck. Even among progressive elites, this constant clampdown on workers who aren’t “free agents” is often ignored or reduced to an abstraction. The kind of economy we are enduring now is most definitely a tragedy for the chronically unemployed, but let’s not forget it also enables a work-place power-shift that grinds down dignity and snuffs out hope for many people who may never actually lose, and cannot dare leave, their increasingly unsatisfactory jobs.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.