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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Obama's Legacy: Hope On The Ropes

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Barack Obama entered office proposing and then passing a Stimulus Plan that was breathtakingly ambitious. This legislation constituted "the greatest increase in government spending in world history". The explicit goal was to halt the serious and precipitous decline of the American economy. One of the central promises of this plan was to slow and then reverse the unemployment rate that had been creeping up at an increasingly alarming rate. Prior to the Stimulus' passage Obama assured a concerned nation that unemployment would go up to 8% and shortly begin a decline.


And then the American people, comforted by this assurance, stepped back and waited for the magic to happen. Seven months later they are still waiting.


Predicting a President's legacy in the seventh month of his first (and only?) forty-eight month term may seem a bit premature but the momentum of this President's economic policies seems inexorable. In January of this year when Obama entered office the unemployment rate was at a troubling 7.6%. Instead of climbing to 8% and then receding the unemployment rate has gone up every month until it now stands at 9.4%, an increase of almost 24%. According to Mortimer Zuckerman of the Wall Street Journal,


"The cumulative job losses over the last six months have been greater than for any other half year period since World War II, including the military demobilization after the war."

As of this date the Administration and the Democratic Congress are now both saying they expect that unemployment will continue to rise for the foreseeable future. Many economists predict that it may not drop down to pre-recession levels for five years or longer.


Unemployment is usually dealt with in the media as a function of how it is affected by or how it affects the economy. But unemployment can't just be viewed as a dry statistical artifact. Job loss has very real effects on very real people. And as President Obama was largely elected on feelings it is reasonable to assume that his legacy will largely be based on how the American public feels when he leaves office.


Since the Great Depression a large body of research has been compiled on the psychological effects of unemployment. From the seminal works of Jahoda, Lazarsfeld, & Zeisel (1933), Bakke (1933) and Eisenberg & Lazarsfeld (1938) to the recent work of Arthur H. Goldsmith (2008) the deleterious effects joblessness has on the psychology of the unemployed has been well documented.


The recent work of Professor Goldsmith of Washington and Lee University supports and extends much of the previous research about the psychological effects of unemployment in finding that for those who are unemployed,


"...even by five weeks you can see the changes. They begin to question themselves: ‘Why was I selected to be unemployed?' ‘Were my skills lacking?' ‘Is there something about me that's problematic?' And so begins the erosion of self esteem, which is such a very important part of our psychological well being.


In addition to a diminished sense of self, those exposed to a few months of unemployment begin to exhibit higher levels of anxiety, depression, and lack of sleep. If people face prolonged unemploy[ment], six to nine months or longer, the psychological effects often become chronic and have a long lasting effect."


Two points on this subject: 1) Clark, Georgelllis and Sanfey, in their 1999 paper, Scarring: The Psychological Impact Of Past Unemployment (1999) point out,


"...if individuals are unemployed for some time, they may become used to it: we refer to this as "habituation"...Individuals may dislike unemployment, and the memory of a previous spell is a spur to avoid another one, but if unemployment becomes the norm for an individual, then there is a reduced incentive to try to change one's labour force status."


2) According to Mortimer Zuckerman,


"The average length of official unemployment [has] increased to 24.5 weeks, the longest since government began tracking this data in 1948. The number of long-term unemployed (i.e., for 27 weeks or more) has now jumped to 4.4 million, an all-time high."


In other words, the unemployment situation created after Obama's Stimulus Plan is creating a generation of former workers who run the risk of becoming habituated to their new status.
Yet again, the problem is even more distressing than the official unemployment rate indicates. According to economist John Lott,


"If we include the normally counted number of unemployed as well as those who have recently given up looking for work and those who have taken a part-time low paying job because they can't find full-time work, the implication is that the unemployment rate for July would be at 16.3 percent. These discouraged workers will again look for work once the economy starts to improve, but this 6.9 percentage point gap between publicly discussed unemployment rate and these discouraged workers is unusually large. "


In light of Clark's research on the effects of long-term unemployment Zuckerman's belief that discouraged workers will look for work again may, in fact, be wrong. If so, the implications for America could be devastating.


Almost unremarked upon by the major media is the fact that the hardest hit victims of Obama's unemployment explosion are the very people who invested the most hope in him: blacks.


According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, black unemployment is now at 14.5% and again this doesn't factor in the number of unemployed blacks who are discouraged or under-employed, likely pushing the real figure to above 20%. One can only imagine the cries of racism the left (including the media) would direct at a conservative Republican administration that had produced such disastrous results.


In light of the damaging psychological effects of unemployment, its current high rate coupled with its extended length presages a new era of American demoralization. If present trends continue, as now seems likely, Barack Obama, who attained office by lifting the spirits of the American people may have as his legacy a new lost generation. Ironically the only solution may be to add one more person to the unemployment rolls: Barack Obama himself.

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