Special Report

The Character of Unemployment

My response to an underemployed critic and to the blogger community.

By 7.22.10

A little while ago, I wrote a piece that appeared in The American Spectator with many observations about the recession. One was that among the people I knew who were unemployed, most had poor work habits or personalities that were difficult to work with. I said there were major and glaring exceptions to this observation but among my small circle, it was true.

A fellow named Aaron Crowe, who describes himself as an "...underemployed writer..." or something similar, apparently was disturbed by this suggestion. He wrote something angry about how offended he was that I would say that most of the unemployed had poor work habits or difficult personalities.  He seemed to think that even though I had not said so, I was describing the mass of the unemployed in my essay. He was REALLY REALLY ANGRY about it. Somehow, he associated this in his mind with the idea that all Irish were drunks. (This kind of thinking could have something to do with his underemployment or maybe I am just mistaken here.)

Anyway, all kinds of blogs and leftist websites picked this up and ran with it, one even suggesting that somehow I was part of a GOP plot to deny unemployment benefits to the unemployed even though I am on record contra that position.

So, I spent most of today thinking about this issue and with great respect to Mr. Crowe, may I please offer a few humble thoughts?

1. I have a small circle of friends and acquaintances. Their experiences may be totally different from the experiences of the rest of Americans.

2. Within that small circle, the persons who are long-term unemployed are generally, with some exceptions, lacking in good work habits or substance abusers or difficult to be around because of personality problems or have not bothered to learn new skills or are wildly unrealistic in what kinds of jobs they will accept.  They are fine people and I like them but they are troubled. This apparently has a lot to do with their economic situation. 

3. This may not at all represent workers in Hamtramck or Passaic or anywhere else. I suspect it has some bearing on their situation but maybe not a lot. I have not made a scientific study, although I would like to.

4. Some kindly soul wrote on the Internet that I must be wrong on this as a generalized matter because so many people with these disabilities were employed three years and now are not. But that is exactly my point. If there is high prosperity, anyone can get a job. When times are tough -- and they are really, really, really tough now -- employers tend to lay off or refuse to hire people with low productivity -- and these tend to be people with poor work habits or poor personalities or unrealistic ideas about work, or some combination of these factors. That at least is my observation and I might be wrong. It does seem to make a tiny bit of sense that if an employer has any discretion at all, he will employ the most productive and not the least productive.

5. I am particularly struck by the fact that Mr. Crowe, my critic, is a writer as an occupation. That is a great job. I have been one most of my life and I love it and I am sure Mr. Crowe does, too. But chronic underemployment is part of the life of the writer unless he or she is a rare bird indeed. There are so incredibly many people who want to be writers and so few who are able to make a living as writers, and this situation is getting worse so painfully rapidly, that writers just have to accept that they will often be unemployed or underemployed unless they are truly exceptional. Most writers, or course, think they are exceptional, but alas, the market makes that decision. I wish Mr. Crowe well. I have been where he is on many a day, and I admire his eagerness to seize any opportunity to get exposure. Even so, writing is a tough gig. To believe one is entitled to earn a good living as a writer because he wants to is the essence of unrealism, a sort of magical thinking.  People who realistically will take any job that comes along can -- in my limited experience -- get work, even in this difficult era. People who insist on having glamour jobs like "writer in the Bay Area" may often be disappointed.

6. I am guessing that the point that Mr. Crowe and his pals on the left were trying to make is that because I pointed out a truth about the unemployed I know is that I am hard hearted. This is painfully the opposite of the truth. I am 65 now, as Mr. Crowe thoughtfully pointed out (in the context of suggesting that I am either insane or demented, a very sophisticated way to begin an essay). The main reason I am not as well situated for retirement as I should be is that I support so many unemployed people -- some of them writers. It is the bane of my wife's existence that money she thinks should go to our savings goes out to help unemployed friends. My critics on the left are pretty free with words of sympathy. How many of them pay for the mortgage payments of their unemployed friends, as I do, would be an interesting thing to know.  

In any event, good luck to you, bloggers. Keep coming back.

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About the Author

Ben Stein is a writer, actor, economist, and lawyer living in Beverly Hills and Malibu. He writes "Ben Stein's Diary" for every issue of The American Spectator.