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Doubt and the unemployment essay
An open misère approach to writing
Long, long after I shared the first draft with you guys via this newsletter, my essay on unemployment has finally been published! Good times. Here’s why it took so long: I was scared I was saying something either embarrassingly wrong or embarrassingly obvious.
That’s because the argument is very basic. It takes an uncontroversial point in economics (that too-high levels of employment threaten price stability) and points out that, for that reason, government policy is to ensure that some workers remain unemployed.
The next step was to say, look, if the government is working to ensure some percentage of workers are unemployed, we can’t very well blame those people for not finding a job. They deserve what all Australians deserve – to not live in poverty.
So the raw fact everyone agrees on has profound moral implications. I’m pretty certain this is brain-meltingly obvious. But… it’s just not how we talk about unemployment. We — and I really mean most of us — tend to think the opposite of this. We tend to think of unemployment as not morally arbitrary but morally blameworthy. That is why, at least in Australia, unemployment insurance is dangerously low. We hold the jobless responsible for not finding work.
So anyway, that’s why I took a year to publish the piece. I was caught in the gulf between the obviousness of the point and the fact that apparently everyone believes the opposite of the point. Good recipe for losing your mind.
What interests me now is trying to explain that gulf. Normally I would write some soft stuff about the neoliberal turn and cynical conservative politicians and perverse interests working to pull the wool over our eyes. And obviously that’s all true.
But the key point is basically that laypeople just have not been told the important bit – that there’s a natural limit to the employment rate. Take a look at this heartbreaking reply from a reader:
If laypeople were told that raw fact, I think they might quickly intuit that something has gone wrong in the way we all talk about joblessness. Once they’ve been given the facts, everyday people can understand the implications.
But what about the people who do know better? What worries me is that there are very many people who have full access to the raw facts but seem very uninterested in the implications. The facts become available in the first year of an economics degree. So it seems like we have a whole section of the population, including our journalists, economists, and politicians, who fully understand that the government mandates a minimum of 4.5% unemployment, but who have no interest in understanding the ramifications of that fact.
One defensive reaction the essay received is that in fact “these topics are discussed a lot by mainstream economists”. And certainly the raw facts are: it’s the economists who set the 4.5% rate. But there’s little evidence of mainstream economist interest in the moral implications of those facts. Take as evidence 20 years of Australian public policy trending in the opposite direction to those implications. And there is no evidence, as far as I can tell, that this professional class spends any time communicating this important observation to the public. They would need to, for me to believe that they have sufficiently grappled with both the fact and its implications.
Even now I am profoundly anxious that I’ve gotten this all wrong. I’d look pretty dumb. If you have thoughts, or queries, or concerns, please tell me. But after a year of sitting on it, sharing it with smart friends, and mulling it in the shower, I’ve come to think the issue here is just that those professional classes are subject to some pretty debilitating epistemic biases.
After all, Marx made essentially this point nearly 200 years ago. For many leftists, all of this is trivially true.