Against Learned Helplessness
By PAUL KRUGMAN
May 29, 2011
Unemployment is a terrible scourge across much of the Western world. Almost 14 million Americans are jobless, and millions more are stuck with part-time work or jobs that fail to use their skills. This is a continuing tragedy, and in a rational world bringing an end to this tragedy would be our top economic priority.
Instead of a determination to do something about the ongoing suffering and economic waste, one sees a proliferation of excuses for inaction, garbed in the language of wisdom and responsibility.
So someone needs to say the obvious: inventing reasons not to put the unemployed back to work is neither wise nor responsible. It is, instead, a grotesque abdication of responsibility.
The fact that nobody in power is talking about jobs does not mean, however, that nothing could be done.
Bear in mind that the unemployed aren’t jobless because they don’t want to work, or because they lack the necessary skills. There’s nothing wrong with our workers — remember, just four years ago the unemployment rate was below 5 percent.
The core of our economic problem is, instead, the debt — mainly mortgage debt — that households ran up during the bubble years of the last decade. Now that the bubble has burst, that debt is acting as a persistent drag on the economy, preventing any real recovery in employment. And once you realize that the overhang of private debt is the problem, you realize that there are a number of things that could be done about it.
For example, we could have W.P.A.-type programs putting the unemployed to work doing useful things like repairing roads — which would also, by raising incomes, make it easier for households to pay down debt. We could have a serious program of mortgage modification, reducing the debts of troubled homeowners. We could try to get inflation back up to the 4 percent rate that prevailed during Ronald Reagan’s second term, which would help to reduce the real burden of debt.
So there are policies we could be pursuing to bring unemployment down. These policies would be unorthodox — but so are the economic problems we face. And those who warn about the risks of action must explain why these risks should worry us more than the certainty of continued mass suffering if we do nothing.
As I see it, policy makers are sinking into a condition of learned helplessness on the jobs issue: the more they fail to do anything about the problem, the more they convince themselves that there’s nothing they could do. And those of us who know better should be doing all we can to break that vicious circle.