My aunt and uncle came for Thanksgiving this year, as they do every year. We cooked a turkey, ate some pumpkin pie and watched a lot of football — like we do every year. And just like every year, a raucous political debate was stirred. Appropriately, we ended up debating what has become another holiday tradition — the extension of (or possible lack of an extension of) federal unemployment benefits.
The benefits are set to expire on Nov. 30, leaving 168,520 workers in Michigan without this aid. The expiration date also leaves Congress only two days to take quick and decisive action when it gets back from recess to extend the benefits.
The debate my aunt and I had reflects a larger national debate. Republicans, like my aunt, say that the extension of unemployment benefits — which would cost only about $60 billion for one year — are a continuation of the out-of-control spending and deficit ignorance that characterizes the Obama administration. I find this kind of ironic, since she and almost every other Republican support extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest of citizens — a policy that would add an astounding $700 billion to the deficit over the next 10 years.
This stance not only seems quite contradictory for any “deficit hawk,” but there also isn’t any proof that the Bush tax cuts would help the economy. Jobless workers who receive aid will — out of necessity for the basics — spend this money, and put it back into the economy. On the other hand, wealthy citizens who reap generously from the Bush tax cuts will end up saving the extra money that they would have spent on taxes because there is no immediate need to spend, which inevitably worsens the economy.
But what frustrates me more than Republicans ignoring the economic arguments in this debate is when they resort to the incredibly trite behavioral arguments. These condescending remarks consist of knocking the unemployed as lazy, whiny and dependent on government aid — as if these so-called generous benefits were more than just a means to subsist. It’s absurd to think that the meager amount given to the unemployed could possibly dissuade someone from looking for or even accepting a job. It’s a fact that there is a scarcity of employment — especially in Michigan where the jobless rate is the second highest in the country. People who believe the image perpetuated by conservatives — that the unemployed live a luxurious life of free riding — are blatantly and naively ignorant of the reality of poverty and joblessness.
It seems as though America is in desperate need of rethinking its priorities. While many Americans are struggling and so many are out of work, why are we, as a nation, even bothering to think about keeping the Bush tax cuts? Why are we even debating extending the unemployment benefits? Both legislators and voters alike need to realize that valuing and privileging the wealthy over the unemployed will eventually cause economic collapse. There is no reasonable economic or moral argument for not extending the unemployment benefits. Congress needs to act immediately after returning from recess to keep extending aid for the unemployed.
Will Butler is an assistant editorial page editor.