Sunday, May 6, 2012

An Oversight in Krugman's End This Depression Now

I started reading Paul Krugman's new book, End This Depression Now!, and felt compelled to point out one problematic remark from the first chapter. In chapter 1 he writes, 
"Clearly what we're interested in is involuntary unemployment. People who aren't working because they have chosen not to work, or at least not to work in the market economy- retirees who are glad to be retired, those who have decided to be full-time housewives or househusbands- don't count. Neither do the disabled, whose inability to work is unfortunate, but not driven by economic issues."
The problem is the last sentence. In fact, for people with disabilities, unemployment may be even more sensitive to economic issues than for others. People with disabilities may be the first to be fired when the economy makes a turn for the worse and the last to be hired when things begin to improve. The employment gap between men and women with and without work- related disabilities has increased over the past 20 years, reaching its largest ever recorded in 2009. Many people with disabilities are willing and able to work with sufficient accommodation. Often a small and relatively inexpensive change is all it takes. Since Krugman supports government spending and investment projects to End This Depression, why not target some of it towards workplace inclusion? Entrepreneurship and virtual or otherwise nontraditional work situations may also be viable--and productive-- options. These issues are all topics of a report of the National Council on Disability called "The Power of Digital Inclusion: Technology's Impact on Employment and Opportunities for People with Disabilities." I worked on the report while at the Center for Advanced Communication Policy at Georgia Tech.

Long-term unemployment, Krugman writes, is "deeply demoralizing for workers," and "the blow to dignity and self-respect can be devastating." Krugman's book is poignantly dedicated "to the unemployed, who deserve better." What an unfortunate carelessness to exclude the disabled even in the first few pages! 

One translation of an often cited Bible verse is "He who does not work, shall not eat" (II Thessalonians 3:10). Another translation of what Paul wrote to the early Christians is "He who is not willing to work, should not eat." Nowadays there is a distinction, but back then the translations would be equivalent. Involuntary unemployment was not a common part of the human experience. In pre-industrial society, farmers farmed and fishermen fished and servants served. But it was not the case that the "labor market" "failed to clear," leaving people involuntarily unemployed.

In fact, the rare biblical cases of involuntary unemployment mostly involve people with disabilities-- blind, deaf, lame, or lepers. They do not work, but Paul and the apostles do not argue that they shouldn't eat. Rather they spread Jesus' message of charity and compassion. This is the Christian attitude toward involuntary unemployment, not an attitude of "let them starve." Jesus' interactions with the lepers teach that they have human dignity, in an era when it was widely believed that disability was a punishment for sin.

When medicine, technology, and social understanding evolved enough to make it possible for people with disabilities to work, Christian teaching promoted this. Krugman cites Ben Bernanke and some happiness studies as his source that work lends dignity to human life, but this message was spelled out emphatically in 1981 in Pope John Paul II's "Laborem Exercens" ("On Human Work"). Laborem Exercens includes a section on disability.

Recently, national communities and international organizations have turned their attention to another question connected with work, one full of implications: the question of disabled people. They too are fully human subjects with corresponding innate, sacred and inviolable rights, and, in spite of the limitations and sufferings affecting their bodies and faculties, they point up more clearly the dignity and greatness of man. Since disabled people are subjects with all their rights, they should be helped to participate in the life of society in all its aspects and at all the levels accessible to their capacities. The disabled person is one of us and participates fully in the same humanity that we possess. It would be radically unworthy of man, and a denial of our common humanity, to admit to the life of the community, and thus admit to work, only those who are fully functional. To do so would be to practise a serious form of discrimination, that of the strong and healthy against the weak and sick... 
The various bodies involved in the world of labour, both the direct and the indirect employer, should therefore by means of effective and appropriate measures foster the right of disabled people to professional training and work, so that they can be given a productive activity suited to them. Many practical problems arise at this point, as well as legal and economic ones; but the community, that is to say, the public authorities, associations and intermediate groups, business enterprises and the disabled themselves should pool their ideas and resources so as to attain this goal that must not be shirked: that disabled people may be offered work according to their capabilities, for this is demanded by their dignity as persons and as subjects of work. Each community will be able to set up suitable structures for finding or creating jobs for such people both in the usual public or private enterprises, by offering them ordinary or suitably adapted jobs...
Careful attention must be devoted to the physical and psychological working conditions of disabled people-as for all workers-to their just remuneration, to the possibility of their promotion, and to the elimination of various obstacles...

This was in 1981! (And the rest of the document is equally far ahead of its time). Over 20 years ago, the Church proclaimed that unemployment of the disabled is involuntary unemployment and contrary to human dignity. Now Paul Krugman, who may or may not have a larger readership than the Pope, is finally proclaiming that involuntary unemployment is contrary to human dignity, but has to add the unfortunate aside: the disabled don't count.