An Unhappy New Year For The Unemployed

Last Saturday, unemployment benefits expired for 1.3 million Americans:

A record-low 25 percent of unemployed Americans will receive benefits now that Congress has allowed the federal program to expire, according to data from the Department of Labor compiled by House Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee. The number is the lowest since the Department of Labor began keeping records in 1946. Before Congress let the federal unemployment benefit-assistance plan expire on Dec. 28, 38 percent of unemployed Americans who paid unemployment taxes were receiving unemployment insurance either through their state or the federal government.

Unless Republicans agree to extend benefits, the number will continue to fall:

Nearly 72,000 people will lose unemployment benefits each week on average in the first half of 2014, according to new estimates released by House Democrats. Roughly 1.3 million Americans no longer receive those benefits as of Saturday. In total, an additional 1.9 million Americans could lose their benefits in the first six months of the new year, according to the estimates, if Congress doesn’t vote to extend the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program. Congress has voted to extend the program 11 times since its inception in 2008.

Chait expects the GOP to do nothing about this crisis:

Both parties have fairly well-defined ideas about the general role of taxes, spending, and regulation. The difference is that the Democratic Party also has a policy agenda that is specifically related to the special conditions of high unemployment and low interest rates.

The Republicans are still merely asserting that their normal agenda applies just as well now as ever. The unique, dire conditions of the Great Recession shouldn’t be expected to undo all the party’s program, or to alter its general long-term ideas. (Democrats have not, and should not, given up their preference for universal health insurance, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and so on, nor should Republicans have to abandon their preference for the opposite.) What they lack is any legislative response to the economic crisis. They just want to get back to normal, and since normality has not arrived, they’d just as soon pretend it has.

Barro made related points in the middle of last month:

As with many economic issues, there is a gap between conservative wonks and conservative policymakers. Many conservative economic policy wonks break with the Republican party by favoring one or more recession-specific economic policies. Economists Luigi Zingales and Glenn Hubbard have called for aggressive programs to modify mortgages. Scott Sumner, David Beckworth, Josh Hendrickson and others have promoted monetary intervention to combat recessions. Michael Strain has promoted a suite of reforms, mostly aimed at the labor market, that would aim to cut unemployment in recessions.

But acceptance of these policies among actual Republican policymakers is near zero. The standard Republican answer for what to do about a bad economy is the same as their answer about what to do about a good economy. As with health care and bank regulation, economic recessions are a policy question to which conservatives have not the wrong answer, but no answer.