The only silver lining for the extended debate over extended unemployment insurance is that we are getting a good clear look at the standard conservative mindset about wealth and poverty, and fortune and misfortune. Paul Krugman calls it “hard-hearted and soft-headed,” an inversion of the famous formulation whereby the liberal reformers of the recent past pledged to conduct a fearless examination of what worked and what didn’t work in programs aimed at expanding economic opportunity. It’s based politically, as Krugman notes, on all sorts of counter-factual assumptions about the nature of the long-term unemployed (i.e., that they are mostly those people).
But what it most comes down to is the belief that economic success is almost invariably the product of virtue, and economic disaster is almost invariably the product of vice, especially sloth. When one is a Republican politician, these equations tend to flatter one’s voters at the expense of people who are less likely to vote and far less likely to vote Republican.
It’s always been preposterous, though. As I like to ask, when the Great Depression hit, did a quarter of the U.S. population collectively lose its moral fiber? Or worse yet, had these millions already fallen into decadence and sloth, causing a righteous God to smite them with unemployment and poverty? No, of course not. Yet there is a definite connection between recent conservative claims that the Great Recession was caused by the avarice and shiftlessness of low-to-medium income families–especially those people–who refused to live within their means, and today’s conservative claims the long-term unemployed could find work if they tried. What makes this approach so maddeningly persistent is that any concession to a more compassionate and factual way of looking at micro-economic catastrophe undermines the base-pleasing assurance that Americans fortunate enough to be doing well earned every damn penny via hard work and sturdy folk virtues. That’s why the “You Built That!” meme was so powerful among the Republican rank-and-file in 2012, beyond its ostensible audience of business owners.