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Dan Morris

Our Fraying Safety Net

Steve Greenhouse, a national labor reporter and popular author who's been good to DMI, had a depressingly incisive piece in the New York Times over the weekend: "Will the Safety Net Catch Economy’s Casualties?"

A generation ago the answer would have been a qualified yes, or a definite maybe. How things have changed.

He reports that government programs like unemployment insurance that were once well-funded and strong enough to help soften the blow of recessions have been severely curtailed. Notice what this means. We already know from the credit crisis spreading like California wildfire across the housing sector to other parts of the economy that this is not just another recession--it could be more catastrophic than anything in recent memory. But the exacerbating factor now is political, not economic: the stymied stimulus in Congress plus a safety net that started fraying years ago equals pain and hardship for struggling Americans that could have been lessened through smarter public policies and progressive leadership.

It's not that politics and policy simply correct economic mistakes or somehow make them less wrong. But government can and should minimize the damage, performing what the late John Kenneth Galbraith called ameliorating actions. Amelioration, on this view, enables people to go on living and working despite the vulnerabilities, contingencies, and inequities created by the market system. This is nothing radical or daring, by the way (it's basic political liberalism), but this minimum necessary role of government over and against the market is sadly still in need of such a defense, especially at a time when there are serious questions about just how vulnerable the current economic crisis, unrivaled by anything we have seen in a long time, actually makes so many people.

To paraphrase Martha Nussbaum writing near the end of the Clinton boom: we are in danger of forgetting that even comfortable lives typically need, and get, support from government; and that we suffer terribly, and become worse off, when that support is withdrawn.

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Posted at 4:38 PM, Nov 17, 2008 in Labor
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