Unemployed? Uncle Sam’s Got Your Back

The society convened for the first debate of the semester to consider Resolved: The government should extend long-term unemployment benefits. Returning to the society after studying in Edinburgh, Ms. Hannah Muldavin (COL ’15) of California keynoted for the affirmation while Mr. Kevin Diasti (NHS ’14) of Florida, back from a semester in Rwanda, spoke for the negation.

Ms. Muldavin, began her keynote with the essential facts of long-term unemployment in the current economy. She noted that 1.3 million Americans would lose benefits without an extension and stressed that the long-term unemployment rate is the highest it has been since World War II. Faced with this grave macroeconomic situation, she argued that any attempt to label unemployment benefits as a disincentive to work ignores economic reality. People do want to work, but they can’t find jobs. Ms. Muldavin appealed to our national pride by quoting Tocqueville – “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” With this idea in mind, she exhorted the audience to come together for our countrymen.

Mr. Diasti pointed out that the negation did not oppose help for the disadvantaged. Rather, their argument hinged on two points: first, what are the conditions of the economy and second, how an extension would affect those conditions. He emphasized that the economy that exists today shares little with the battered market of 2008, which originally spurred long-term unemployment benefits through Congress. While many economic indicators have improved, long-term unemployment has not gone down nearly as much. According to Mr. Diasti, this disconnect has naturally come about because of macroeconomic structural shifts. He compared the economy to a skateboarder, with the crash of 2008 breaking bones. “We can’t just pick the skateboarder back up and send him on his way”. He closed by stressing the stop-gap nature of long-term unemployment benefits and the possibility of spending the money elsewhere.

Mr. Michael Mouch agreed that structural unemployment is on the long-term rise, but argued that the welfare state has and should rise along with it. He said that the government should implement a Universal Basic Income, like Switzerland. Mr. Patrick Spagnulo deemed such policies to be unsustainable “Band-Aids” that divert money from more prudent investments like education and infrastructure that would actually stimulate the economy. Mr. Christopher Stromeyer gained the floor’s attention with a humorous story about his German aunt, but soon disputed Mr. Spagnulo by stressing that “giving money to people stimulates the economy”. Mr. Jacob Arber countered that unemployment benefits take the form of small payments to many people, which may not stimulate as effectively as large-scale investments.

Vice President Anna Hernick pushed back against macroeconomic arguments and appealed to the human side of the debate. “In the richest country in the world, people should not have to worry about merely surviving unemployment”. Mr. Denny Quinn said this misses the original point of the benefits, which was stimulus and not welfare. Encouraging such legislative drift harms our democracy. Mr. Gavin Bade countered that any unemployment relief bill must necessarily be about helping people and noted that the benefits are “chump change compared to Social Security, Medicare, and Defense spending”. While stressing that the negation does not blame the unemployed for their situation, Mr. Daniel Kendrick contested that the government actually creates more unemployment by incentivizing not working.

Mr. Evan Monod pushed back against this claim, noting that benefits are $300 per week, which barely keeps people above the poverty line. “We’re not giving out Cadillacs.” He maintained that the expiration of benefits represented a dire loss, especially over Christmas. “You’re a mean one, U.S. government!” Ms. Abby Grace declared that she supported the negation because a stop-gap extension would not do the job. Like Sweden, the U.S. should provide a salary and job training to the unemployed. Ms. Colleen Wood argued that such a plan would never pass the current Congress. “There are not better ways of dealing with unemployment right now”. Mr. Joshua Weiner questioned how Ms. Wood’s approach would work in the long term. “People will always need benefits. Where do you stop?”

Mr. Will Greco (COL ’15) admitted that long-term unemployment benefits are a Band-Aid, but maintained that with no policy overhaul on the horizon we shouldn’t rip that Band-Aid off and leave people helpless. Mr. Benjamin Mazzara (COL ’15) declared that “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”, arguing that while cutting benefits is hard it is necessary. Mr. Patrick Eisen (SFS ’17) took a psychological turn with the debate, noting that corporate and consumer confidence is still quite low. An elimination of benefits could have a wider impact on already shaky economic confidence. Mr. Tyler Hunt-Smith (SFS ’16) contested that Mr. Eisen missed the economic paradigm shift taking place as the need for manual labor decreases. “We can’t do what we do with the blind hope that things will get better”.

Ms. Amanda Wynter rebuked the negation for viewing the world like a graph, with neat places to input different variables. “We are talking about our fellow citizens here.” In her view, helping those citizens is an investment that will create value down the road. Mr. Danny Graff countered that the negation still cares about people down on their luck and surprised the society by professing that “We should not extend benefits, we must!” Mr. Warren Wilson informed everyone on the negation (except Mr. Graff) that they were allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good. While there may be larger economic problems, we cannot repair them right away. Mr. Wilson pointed out that there are fixed dates even with the extension, so any arguments based on asking “Where does it end?” are moot.

Mr. Reid Kelly (COL ’13) maintained that “encouraging people to stay unemployed is not good for them.” Mr. Greg Miller countered there are three people looking for every one available job, so unemployment benefits are a form of protection. Mr. Jeff Naft (COL ’17) questioned whether we can really call $300 per week protection and compared the benefits to pouring a few drops of water on a burning building.

Ms. Emily Coccia appealed to Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London as proof that humans have a fundamental desire to work but Mr. Tim Rosenberger retorted that films like The Wolf of Wall Street speak to a human desire to do well without actually working. Mr. David Edgar replied that “What Mr. Rosenberger forgets, so eloquently, is how the movie ends.” The viewer is left unsatisfied with the ideal of wealth over work, because work for the sake of work is a higher ideal. Ms. Maggie Cleary agreed that work is an end and not only a means, but disagreed that unemployment benefits spring from this ideal. “We are the land of opportunity, not free checks”. Chancellor Prindiville decried the idea that unemployment benefits are “free checks”. “Job loss is like the Titanic, and these benefits are a small lifeboat”.

When the debate returned to the keynoters, Mr. Diasti returned to his initial point: that the negation does want to help the unemployed, but that an extension of current benefits is not the best solution. In Rwanada the government overhauled the healthcare system despite its high popularity and effectiveness because its long-term sustainability was in doubt. Mr. Diasti urged the U.S. government to be so forward-thinking.

Ms. Muldavin used her keynote to push back against the “Band-Aid” and “Where does it end?” arguments, reminding the society that Band-Aids can be useful and pointing out that 1.3 % unemployment is the rate at which the benefits would expire. Even if these benefits amount to a few gallons of water, an extension is better than watching the labor market burn.

With five abstaining, the society voted 30-10 to affirm. Huzzah!


Michael C. Whelan


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