To Get More of Something (e.g., Unemployment), Subsidize It

Ronald Reagan was no economist, but his economic logic was impeccable when he declared, “If you want more of something, subsidize it; if you want less of something, tax it.”

So, as the current recession deepens and the rate of unemployment rises, we might have confidently predicted that Congress, in its infinite compassion for the little guy, would extend the period during which the unemployed may collect unemployment-insurance benefits. President Bush signed a bill today that will provide as many as 13 weeks of additional benefits, on top of the additional 13 weeks of benefits approved last June, which was on top of the 26 weeks the basic program provides.

The Associated Press notes that “Congress has enacted federally funded extensions seven times in the past 50 years during economic slumps – in 1958, 1961, 1972, 1975, 1982, 1991 and 2002.” Thus, this particular sort of counterproductive economic policy is almost as predictable as the sun’s rising in the east.

The availability of unemployment benefits reduces the cost of remaining unemployed, and therefore increases the amount of unemployment that workers choose. They more readily turn down existing job offers, in hopes that with additional time to search, they will find better ones. Or they simply take life easy for a while, not searching seriously at all. More people are happy to do nothing if they can collect a payment for doing nothing.

The Associated Press report also states: “The measure is estimated to cost about $5.7 billion, although economists put the positive impact at $1.64 for every dollar spent on jobless benefits because the money helps sustain other jobs and restores consumer confidence.” It’s good that the economists responsible for this estimate remain anonymous, because the nonsense it expresses brings no credit to their professional reputation.

Think about it: according to this claim, every time the government takes a dollar from earners and hands it to someone for not working, there’s a net gain of 64 cents. (In a spirit of professional generosity, I am ignoring the large costs of processing this transfer as well as the large deadweight cost associated with any tax.) So, why don’t we insist that the government tax more and more money away from those who earn it, and hand the loot over to those who are not working—after all, that net gain of 64 cents per dollar continues to beckon, does it not?

In a word, no, because a nasty little consequence will certainly ensue. As the tax increases, fewer people will choose to earn income; and as the handouts increase, more people will choose to stop working and collect the dole. Before long —  yes, you guessed it—nobody will be working and everybody will be collecting a government payment for not working. It’s the paradise of which every social democrat has always dreamed.

Well, okay, maybe this scheme will run into some problems before it reaches nirvana. Maybe the problem will turn out to be the pesky fact that before the recipeints can consume (which requires getting something of value in exchange for their unemployment-benefit dollars), somebody must have worked to produce those goods and services. Little things like the need to produce (hence the need to save, invest, and work) before consuming and the need to provide incentives to the savers, entrepreneurs, and workers tend to get lost in the shuffle of modern mainstream economics, especially macroeconomics, where the narrow focus on the short run leads analysts to take for granted the economy’s potential to produce.

In any event, we may expect unemployment to increase as the recession grows worse, and we may confidently understand that a portion of the unemployment that exists at any particular time will be attributable to the availability of unemployment-insurance benefits. Congress will blame the market for the unemployment and take credit for, in effect, helping to increase and extend it.

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
Beacon Posts by Robert Higgs | Full Biography and Publications
  • Catalyst