Louis Uchitelle reports: Occupy Wall Street and its numerous iterations across the country could take on a second life, one that spurs the unemployed to finally speak out forcefully on their own behalf. Already there have been isolated outbursts. But for such incidents to spread and take hold, more confidence is required that speaking out would produce results—and confidence is lacking, says Richard Curtin, director of the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers, a monthly national poll of 500 people.
“People are discouraged,” Curtin says. “They believe that the administration and Congress tried to do a lot to get the economy restarted and nothing happened. So they are gradually embracing the notion that government is incapable of creating jobs.”
The government has, arguably, invited this response by talking about creating jobs without yet doing so—echoing a similar reluctance in the past. Twice since World War II Congress has watered down bills that would have mandated full employment—once in 1946, although the Depression was still fresh in people’s minds, and again in the mid-’70s, in the midst of a severe recession. The bills became law—the second one, finally enacted in 1978, is famously known as the Humphrey-Hawkins Act—but without the provisions that would have required the government to either hire directly or subsidize hiring whenever the unemployment rate rose above a specified level. The laws, in sum, were toothless.
With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the rise of supply-side economics, the dynamics shifted drastically. Unemployment was no longer seen as a failure of the nation’s employers to generate enough demand for workers. That was and still is the reason, but it faded as an explanation and as a prod to action. Instead, the unemployed are persistently blamed for their own unemployment, which eases pressure on government to help them. If only they acquired enough education and skill, the argument goes—and it is endlessly repeated—they would be hired. Corporate executives, politicians and many prominent economists push this view, and the unemployed, encouraged to blame themselves, keep silent. Or as Richard Sennett, a New York University sociologist, puts it: “People don’t cooperate with each other. They’ve lost the desire to do so and the skill that cooperation requires, so when things fall apart, they react as if it were their individual failure and are passive about it.”