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Bunning Shamelessly Intensifies ‘National Experiment in Stress’

Roger Bybee

U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) arrives at the U.S. Capitol for a vote on Tuesday, March 2, in Washington, DC. Bunning has been under criticism for blocking legislation to extend benefits and health insurance subsidies for unemployed.

When Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) begged Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) to drop his one-man obstruction to extending unemployment benefits to the more than 1 million Americans who will lose their benefits this month, Bunning replied: Tough shit.”

Bunning wasn’t alone in his crusade against the unemployed. Unemployment insurance doesn’t create new jobs,” declared Sen. Jon Kyl, (R-Ariz.), even though the spending of jobless workers keeps some money flowing for local grocery stores and car-repair shops. Continuing to pay people unemployment compensation is a disincentive for them to seek new work,” Kyl said.

Got the message yet, folks? It’s tough shit” as far your unemployment benefits.You’re having it too easy and draining federal tax revenues. Yeah, there may be six of you looking for work for ever actual job opening, but you’re not trying hard enough.

One out of seven mortgages might be underwater, but why’d you buy the house if you couldn’t afford it? Not our problem. Yeah, we’ve got long-term unemployment, but that just shows the need for yet more tax cuts for the rich in order to create jobs.

However, as you might expect, jobless workers see the situation from a different persective. One jobless worker, Christine Costello, wrote me to explain how the end of her unemployment compensation means the end of her medications and her ability to pay for anything else:

Here I sit…my unemployment is done in 2 weeks. …after 25 years my employer let me go. …so I sit here while my taxes pay for their bail out and in two weeks when my unemployment ends not only will I have no money for bills but I will no longer have money for medications. …..What is wrong with this picture…..time to bail out the people!!!

This story is part of a much broader picture. America is now looking at a very prolonged period of tiny job growth and high unemployment. Over the last 10 years, job growth was a mere 0.9%, compared with 20% to 38% in previous post-WWII decades.

To re-structure the economy to more fully serve its owners and managers, Corporate America has shed as many workers as possible. In an extraordinary Atlantic article, Don Peck vividly depicts the many dimensions of a prolong period of high unemployment in America:

A slowly sinking generation; a remorseless assault on the identity of many men; the dissolution of families and the collapse of neighborhoods; a thinning veneer of national amity — the social legacies of the Great Recession are still being written, but their breadth and depth are immense.

Clearly, cavemen like Jim Bunning and Jon Kyl have no clue as to the scope of the suffering of the unemployed. Meanwhile, we can expect that an extension of unemployed and health benefits will be enacted soon, as wiser Republicans decide that they cannot afford to display such open contempt to jobless Americans in an election year.


But have the White House and the Democratic leadership, their economic views distorted by the Wall Street lenses of Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner, come to grips with the immensity of the jobs crisis? It remains to be seen if they fully grasp the meaning of so much joblessness over such a long period.

Economist Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute summarized the unique depth of the vast transformation we are undergoing: We haven’t seen anything like this before: a really deep recession combined with a really extended period, maybe as much as eight years, all told, of highly elevated unemployment … We’re about to see a big national experiment on stress.”


The big national experiment on stress” is sweeping in its reach and hits jobless people in surprising deep and profund ways.

  • The unemployment rate for males aged 25-55 is 19.4%
  • The Great Recession has accelerated the loss of manufacturing work, with 5.6 million jobs lost since 2000. (Three-quarters of the 8.4 million layoffs have occurred among males, as manufacturing and construction have been especially hard-hit. These men typically feel an enormous loss of identity and purpose in their lives.) 
  • Nearly half of all families—44 percent, to be precise — experienced a job loss, a reduction in hours, or a pay cut in the past year. 

Each 1% rise in unemployment is tied to 47,000 additional deaths, half caused by heart problems. After a 260-member United Steelworkers local found out that Arcelor Mittal was closing its profitable and productive plant in Lackawanna, N.Y., no less than six workers had heart attacks. In his Atlantic article, Peck summarizes the findings of British economist Andrew Oswald, an economist at the University of Warwick:

No other circumstance produces a larger decline in mental health and well-being than being involuntarily out of work for six months or more. It is the worst thing that can happen, he says, equivalent to the death of a spouse, and a kind of bereavement” in its own right. Only a small fraction of the decline can be tied directly to losing a paycheck, Oswald says; most of it appears to be the result of a tarnished identity and a loss of self-worth.

Unemployment leaves psychological scars that remain even after work is found again, and, because the happiness of husbands and the happiness of wives are usually closely related, the misery spreads throughout the home.

Attacking the problem of unemployment, like fighting for healthcare reform, is literally a matter of life and death. On healthcare, rather than embrace the only obvious non-corporate solution on health, the Democrats instead shackled themselves to the for-profit insurers who maximize profits by minimizing care. The outcome seems almost guaranteed to disappoint and disillusion much of the public.

If the Obama administration similarly remains handcuffed to corporations that are uplifting their earnings by off-shoring jobs and productive capacity, it will have little chance to prevent this experiment in stress” from spinning into unpredictable and perhaps ugly forms of social disorder.

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Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger’s work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
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