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"You Cannot Seriously Claim That [the Unemployed] Themselves Bear Guilt for Their Destiny":

So says a German Green Party member at the end of this AP story:

[Thirty-seven-year-old Henrico] Frank ..., in his usual grubby clothes, nose rings and partially bleached, spiked hair[, ...] chanced upon Kurt Beck, chairman of the Social Democrats and assailed him for the government's failure to lift people like himself out of unemployment.

Beck replied, "If you'd just wash and shave, you'd find a job, too."

Two days later, Frank lopped off his locks, shaved his dark beard and removed his nose rings. Then he organized a news conference.

"I am ready to change," Frank said, saying he was fed up with handouts. "I'll take any job." ...

Frank's public conversion seems to have led to some job offers; and while of course this likely flows from the unusual publicity this case attracted, I'm pretty confident that even a quiet change in apperance to something that signals affinity for tradition rather than for self-expressive exuberance would substantially improve an applicant's chances for a job. (Perhaps not in the few careers where self-expressive exuberance is considered especially important, but those are very much the exception.)

Green Party parliamentarian (and, at least as of 2005, "labour market spokeswoman of the Greens") Thea Dueckert, however, responded: "With 4 million unemployed, you cannot seriously claim that the people themselves bear guilt for their destiny." If she's making the claim that there are structural and institutional factors outside each applicant's control that make unemployment more or less likely, she is surely right.

But if the claim is that most of the unemployed can't affect their chances of getting a job, and thus don't bear some responsibility for failure to get a job (and thus some guilt for this failure) — well, that's the sort of attitude that I suspect would still further exacerbate unemployment problems, whether the attitude is held by the individual unemployed or by leading politicians.

Thanks to blogger and Boston Herald city editor Jules Crittenden for the pointer.

Kevin Murphy:
I believe there is a California law that prohibits job discrimination against cross-dressers. How are nose-rings and beards different?
12.18.2006 12:53pm
cirby (mail):
Well, not all unemployed, but the vast majority of people who can't find work right now are in that situation because they made some bad choices and stuck with them.

I know one young fellow who was always hunting for work and couldn't find anything worth doing - until he cleaned himself up, that is. He kept the long hair, but made it tidier, wore cleaner and less annoying clothes, and had a "real" job in about a week, making twice as much as he ever had before...

Hell, I could be making a lot more money if I changed a few things (shave the beard, dress more conservatively), but the sort of jobs I'd get would drive me mad in short order.
12.18.2006 12:55pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
Never been a day in my life there weren't help-wanted ads in the newspaper.
12.18.2006 1:01pm
Glenn W. Bowen (mail):
I thought that in Germany, the unemployed were more or less "assigned" a job- there was a flurry in the news in the last year or so concerning a woman who might have possibly been employed as a sex worker because the government classifies that as legitimate work.
12.18.2006 1:09pm
Currently Unemployed J.D.:
Of course many people can improve their chances of gettting a job. But it's also true that if at a given point in time there are twice as many job seekers as there are job openings, then only 1/2 of the job seekers can actually get jobs.
12.18.2006 1:09pm
Currently Unemployed J.D.:
Of course many people can improve their chances of getting a job. But it's also true that if at a given point in time there are twice as many job seekers as there are job openings, then only 1/2 of the job seekers can actually get jobs.
12.18.2006 1:09pm
Gino:
It's also true that anyone who can work, is looking for work, but cannot find work for whatever reason, can start their own business. I tried it. I failed. But I work for people who tried and succeeded. Indeed, I'm pretty sure that evey currently ongoing business was started by someone.
12.18.2006 1:42pm
john44232:
"But it's also true that if at a given point in time there are twice as many job seekers as there are job openings, then only 1/2 of the job seekers can actually get jobs."

You're conclusion is only as good as your unverified premise--"at a given point in time there are twice as many job seekers as there are job openings." I have no idea if that is true.

Moreover, even if your premise were true for a single point in time, your conclusion does not necessarily follow. Adding workers to the labor market might in fact create additional jobs in a number of ways. Workers earn money, thereby increase the demand for goods and services, and thereby stimulate demand for labor. Unemployed people might start a new business or expand an existing business, and directly create jobs. We don't really know how many jobs would be available at T2 if job seekers took all of the job available at T1, because that very act would likely create additional job openings.
12.18.2006 1:49pm
speedwell (mail):
Never been a day in my life there weren't help-wanted ads in the newspaper.

Never been a week in my job hunt that I didn't hear some schmoe announce that all a job seeker had to do to get a job was call a number posted in some random want ad. Ever hear of a little bitty thing called "qualifications," mister smug?
12.18.2006 2:01pm
Silicon Valley Jim:
I believe there is a California law that prohibits job discrimination against cross-dressers. How are nose-rings and beards different?

I don't know whether Germany, where the story is set, has such a law. I rather doubt it, but I simply don't know.

Also, I'd guess that, at least in practice, and possibly in the way that it's drafted, the California law applies to an employee, not a job seeker. It would, I think, be much easier for an employee to prove that he had been fired for cross-dressing than for a job applicant to prove that he would have been hired had he not cross-dressed.
12.18.2006 2:08pm
Justin (mail):
This is getting really ephermal and theretical, but as to your point:

"But if the claim is that most of the unemployed can't affect their chances of getting a job,"

I would say the accuracy of this statement may be based on the definition of the term "cannot" - you probably would only get the MP to agree with you here if you used the term in a way that took the person's abilities, habits, and environments as given, rather than adjustable.

Likewise, the dependant argument "and thus don't bear some responsibility for failure to get a job (and thus some guilt for this failure" is also dependant, for similar reasons, on the meaning of the term "responsibility." The German MP was surely not using it in a legal sense.

The second dependant argument, "well, that's the sort of attitude that I suspect would still further exacerbate unemployment problems" - I think her position is that this would be wrong no matter what. Even granting you your first two statements, I think her view is that given that there are sufficient amount of laborers with the given crossskills of the unemployed, that the types of things that determine the number of unemployed at any given time will depend, in aggregate, entirely on larger factors. These factors include market forces, capital adaptability, and society's ability to educate en gross. If one particular unemployed person took specific actions to help or hinder, that might help get that person a job at the expense of another unemployed person, but it wouldn't mean "responsibility" in at least one abstract form, that if only those 4 million or so people were "better at not being unemployed" that there would be less unemployment. Instead, there would just be a different set of 4 million unemployed.
12.18.2006 2:16pm
logicnazi (mail) (www):
This is just totally the wrong question to ask. I don't even understand what it means to say these people bear guilt for their situation. I mean presumably being unemployed is not some kind of moral crime.

I suspect this is a round about way to say that you shouldn't feel obligated to help them or that they deserve the suffering they experience. However, this seems totally and deeply wrong. As a moral human being one has an obligation to try and eliminate suffering whatever it's cause (of course understanding that you don't try to fix things at a net cost to happiness).

Now if it turns out that the unemployed can find jobs by simple changes of behavior this does say something about the type of policy that would be best. Quite possibly when this is the case a 'stick' policy of threatening to take away/not offering benefits is the best way to alleviate the suffering. Just as it sometimes (tho not as often as people think) justified to grade students on their homework and (less frequently) their attendance so they are incentivized to do what is best for themselves so too might the threat of no money encourage people to get a job and improve their lives.

Also currently unemployed point is really irrelevant. If it is true that most unemployed don't bother making themselves hireable then employers have far less incentive to spend money looking for more workers. Likely if the quality of unemployed workers improved the number of job openings for them would as well (not to mention the economic expansion as our labor pool is better utilized).

However, this just speaks to what policy would best help these people it does not say we can ignore their suffering.

I'm sure virtually no one here thinks we should let stranded mountain climbers die or not bother trying to talk the suicidal man on the bridge down even though these people are surely the ones responsible for their situations. So what's the difference between someone who has the stupid idea that they would be better off dead (assuming they are wrong) and someone who has the stupid idea that they don't need to shave to get a job or is angry and bitter about having to apply for a job. In all these cases the person's idiocy or stubbornness isn't justification for leaving them to rot, rather it just bears on whether they need tough love or simple support.

--

Of course I susect that many of these people who don't shave or don't do these other things simply don't realize (or don't want to realize) how important this sort of thing is. If you grow up in a middle/upper class background you internalize this sort of thing and the idea of someone not doing it seems abhorrent and obviously an indication of great laziness/personal defect. However, if you don't grow up in this background many of these things aren't so obvious and actually need to be told to people. So it also could be that it is training/education not tough love that is needed.

To take a different example to someone like myself who is comfortable and understands computers it often seems like the people who I try to help use the computer (like older relatives) must be deliberately refusing to understand. In some sense this is true, they resent having to learn a new mental model so stubbornly insist that they don't need to and that the computer must fit into their preexisting modes of understanding. Now it's certainly true that it's their own damn fault that they don't understand how to use a computer but this doesn't make it a productive attitude to take with them nor with the unemployed who stubbornly refuse to adopt better grooming and manners.
12.18.2006 2:17pm
chrismn (mail):
In some ways not being able to find a job is like not being able to sell your house, which we hear about all the time. Except for very rare exceptions, there is no such thing as not being able to sell your house. It's just a matter of price. If you offer to sell it for $10, you can sell it.

There are some differences between labor markets and housing markets, especially in highly regulated labor markets like Germany's.

1) There are minimum wages and benefits defined by law. You may not be able to offer to work for a wage low enough to make it worth it for someone to hire you.

2) In many places it's easier to end your relationship with your spouse than end your relationship with an employee. Employment at will simply doesn't exist. If divorce and/or abandonment were impossible, or at least it was much more costly to end a marriage than it is now, it is true that marriages already in existence would now last longer, this would also affect people's willingness to enter into marriage in the first place. Same thing in employment markets.
12.18.2006 2:34pm
dick thompson (mail):
I think my problem with these people is that they require a job that meets their qualifications.

True story. When I first got divorced I moved to a town where I did not know anyone at all and had no job. I am a college grad with a degree in English and experience at computers and this was back in 1966. I got a job driving advertisements from the newspaper back to the advertisers for their approval. I was the only one doing this who had even finished 10th grade. By moving quickly I was able to get done early and then went to a gas station and changed clothes in the restroom to go on an interview. I had a job in less than a week as a programmer. If I had not taken that other job that was a dead end I would probably not have had the time to go for the other job interview and still eat and sleep under cover.

You sometimes have to do the crap jobs to get where you want to be but if you choose not to, that is your own fault. You shouldn't blame the economy if you can't find a job then.
12.18.2006 2:38pm
Spartacus (www):
dick thompson: "I think my problem with these people is that they require a job that meets their qualifications."

Currently Unemployed J.D.:
"Of course many people can improve their chances of gettting a job. But it's also true that if at a given point in time there are twice as many job seekers as there are job openings, then only 1/2 of the job seekers can actually get jobs."

Hmmm. . . feel like flippin' burgers, UJD? Or how about paralegal work?
12.18.2006 3:21pm
Currently Unemployed J.D.:
john44232:

Note that in my post I wrote "if". Yes, if you deny my premise the conclusion won't be entailed. Yes, if more workers are hired there may be more jobs created, but I wrote "point in time". For whatever reason, you want to avoid grappling with the truth that if on Monday morning, 9:00 AM, there are X job openings, and there are greater than X job seekers, not all of them can be hired that morning.
12.18.2006 4:12pm
speedwell (mail):
"Meets their qualifications," for a lot of the unemployed people I know, means that an out-of-work chef, for example, can't get a job as an oilfield engineer. Or that a young mom with a baby can't take a job as a secretary because she has no office experience, and anything that pays less wouldn't cover her daycare. Or that the doctor from Russia who just moved to Texas loses the hospital grunt job to someone bilingual in Spanish. Sure, people can educate themselves, eventually, but what do they do for housing and food while they're learning, even if they aren't real picky about jobs?
12.18.2006 4:12pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
I've been unemployed a lot, something like 21 out of the past 69 months. I'm a well-groomed software engineer. The industry is screaming that there is such a shortage of software engineers that they have to imports hundreds of thousands on non-immigrant visas. I've lost out on jobs for silly reasons, like not having a particular skill that would take a couple of weeks to pick up.

If my only goal were "being employed" I could get work a lot faster. (As a matter of fact, after 9/11, when it looked like I was going to be out of work until past when my second 7 months of unemployment insurance ran out, I started driving a school bus, not for the pay ($10/hour times 2 hours a day doesn't cover much) but the skills, in case I had to get a job doing something semi-skilled, and the attitude.) But below a certain level, all it means is I'm starving to death more slowly. If I expect that I'll be working in my profession again, delivering newspaper advertisements doesn't help if it interferes with job seeking.

You sometimes have to do the crap jobs to get where you want to be but if you choose not to, that is your own fault. You shouldn't blame the economy if you can't find a job then.

I would like to be employed as a mid-career software engineer, with 6 months living expenses in the bank. I've got good experience, buzzword-compliant skills, native intelligence, and a brand-name degree. What crap job will further my goal, and how long should I expect to be in those jobs? How should I support my three school age children and partially disabled[*] wife while I'm working that job?

[*]She became disabled while still employed, but didn't know that this lung damage was the cause of her fatigue until she was deep into extended maternity leave. The only way to get the after-tax part of her retirement savings, for the downpayment on a house, was to withdraw from the pension plan and role the pre-tax part into an IRA. The disability coverage was tied with the pension, and apparently that bell can't be unrung. Because she worked for the Commonwealth she's not eligible for SSDI -- she can get survivor benefits for her homemaking while I work, but not SSDI, even though she is contributing to my earnings -- and even when I'm getting unemployment insurance the household income is too large for SSI.
12.18.2006 4:27pm
Parvenu:
chrismn wrote:
There are some differences between labor markets and housing markets, especially in highly regulated labor markets like Germany's.

1) [Minimum wage]

2) [Employee tenure]


I'd actually guess that other regulations in Europe do more to hurt employment prospects than those regulations nominally directed at the labor market itself, particularly those that have the effects on productivity (i.e., output per worker per hour) than on the labor market (i.e., input per worker per hour). One reason American unemployment is so low, and likely to remain so even with a prospective increase in the minimum wage, is that productivity gains here have been large enough that even comparatively unskilled workers can get a fair amount done, if efficiently managed.

I agree that Europe's labor market is definitely stringent and would cause a rational employer to hesitate before making a commitment to a prospective employee. However, I think Europe would get a lot more bang for its buck focusing on improving output rather than cheapening input.
12.18.2006 5:19pm
Russ (mail):
Speedwell, I'm sorry, but those qualifications are still the result of decisions you made, not someone else. It is YOUR responsibility to get yourself qualified, not anyone else's, and that will take time and work.

Although a few of the commenters get it here, I am appalled at the number who cry, "It can't be my fault!" Geez, no wonder you don't have a job.

And yes, you might have to take the crap jobs and look for opportunities. That's life. Most of us accept that.
12.18.2006 5:21pm
markm (mail):
I suspect that the Greens and other leftist parties have created policies such that there are going to be a few million unemployed Germans, whether or not they are qualified for any jobs. So in that sense, what one person does to make himself more hireable is may cause someone else to become unemployed.

However, the number of jobs available is not fixed. I have encountered employees who made the job of supervising them more difficult than doing their work myself would be. I suspect that Henrico Frank is one such - and all that cleaning himself up will do is to remove the most obvious warning signs. Given too many applicants like that, employers may well stop advertising jobs and struggle to get along short-handed, rather than further burden themselves with employees whose net productivity is negative. OTOH, when someone they trust tells them of a person with the right attitudes who is looking for work, there might be a job opening that wasn't there before.
12.18.2006 5:24pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):
<blockquote>
I would like to be employed as a mid-career software engineer, with 6 months living expenses in the bank. I've got good experience, buzzword-compliant skills, native intelligence, and a brand-name degree. What crap job will further my goal, and how long should I expect to be in those jobs? How should I support my three school age children and partially disabled[*] wife while I'm working that job?
</blockquote>Move to Boise? Jobs aren't in short supply hereā€”even for mid-career software engineers. Of course, the cost of housing is so low here that even people working semi-skilled jobs can buy houses.

I just spent a few minutes searching the job listing for Boise at careerbuilder.com--and there's lots of software engineer jobs available here.
12.18.2006 5:26pm
markm (mail):
Finally, unless your last name is something like Bush, you prove you have the attitudes to be successful in a good job by being successful in a "crap job". Due to a long-ago period of alcoholism, I probably have far more experience with low-paid and temporary jobs than most people on this forum. I've been a farm laborer, a dishwasher, a secretary, an assembly worker, an enlisted technician in the Air Force, a Census enumerator, and I've worked as an engineer for 18 years. There are jobs with low pay, but except for a few supervisors who are hurting themselves by driving away the best employees, only a crappy attitude can make them crap jobs - and that attitude will keep you in crap jobs.
12.18.2006 5:34pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
'virtually no one here thinks we should let stranded mountain climbers die'

I'm ready to let them die if I have to pay to get them down. I didn't ask them to climb the mountain, I don't get anything out of it if they manage to get up and down on their own. I'm OK with participating if I get in on the upside. If I don't, they can continue to get along without me.

speedwell, every mentally and physically healthy person has a job on offer. I've had about as many low-entry jobs as anybody, including picking up garbage at a drive-in and delivering telephone books. 'Qualifications' didn't enter into either one of those.

Once, over summer break, after I finished ROTC camp, I had about 3 weeks till school started again. I tried to find a job at the tail-end of the vacation season at a summer resort. Took me exactly 30 minutes.

A bingo parlor wanted a shill, another no-qualification job. When I said I'd do the job for 3 weeks, the manager said, 'No, I want somebody permanent.' I said, 'OK, give me the job, leave your help wanted sign in the window, and when you get the guy you want, I'll quit.'

I worked until the morning I had to leave for school.

Like I said, there's always a job. There isn't always a worker.
12.18.2006 9:02pm
gasman (mail):
Some of the unemployed are indeed lazy. They figure that the system cannot support 100% employment, even 90%. Therefore someone has to be unemployed, and by golly it's going to be me. Those with a little gumption can easily join the ranks of the employed, the rest just resign themselves to a free ride of state benefits.
12.18.2006 9:12pm
ReaderY:
People can do a number of things to improve their chances of success. However, seeing matters in terms of blame and guilt is probably not one of them.
12.18.2006 10:24pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):

A bingo parlor wanted a shill, another no-qualification job. When I said I'd do the job for 3 weeks, the manager said, 'No, I want somebody permanent.' I said, 'OK, give me the job, leave your help wanted sign in the window, and when you get the guy you want, I'll quit.'

I worked until the morning I had to leave for school.

Like I said, there's always a job. There isn't always a worker.
Yup. I've been trying for months to get SOMEONE to do some landscaping work on my house. What's involved?

1. Dig a ditch--shovel or power equipment.

2. Put a layer of pavers in that ditch, stacked up high enough to make a terrace.

3. Fill in the space behind that wall with dirt.

I keep calling landscaping companies--and the big problem is that there are no unemployed people available for them to hire! Winter is about to hit, so we are giving up on the attempt until spring. I can only hope that SOMEONE who wants to work and isn't already rich will suddenly wander into this area of Idaho.

As much as I am upset about illegal immigration, I at least somewhat understand the desire for some sort of temporary worker program--there is such a severe shortage of workers, skilled and unskilled, who want a job. My current employer is having to hire H1B visa workers for jobs that pay $101,000 to $143,000 a year (and in a county where you can buy houses for $150,000). Are there really no BSEEs left in America? Is EVERYONE already rich? It seems it.
12.18.2006 11:28pm
RainerK:
Latest on the Frank jobless story:
After not being available to personally appear either at the Rhineland-Palatinate Prime Minister Kurt Beck's office or his own home, Mr. Beck's office tendered 8 serious job offers to Mr. Frank by dropping them in his mail box. Meanwhile the story has been picked up by several jobless activist organisations for their own purposes. Mr. Frank has now a spokesperson, gives interviews and appears at press conferences.
In German

Before and after pics

Oh well. My personal opinion? The guy is a deadbeat loser.
He wears a button that says: "Work is shit".
QED

But I do know that the German job market is bad. It took a young relative almost a year to find employment, despite a straight A grad degree plus doctorate in electrical engineering. That's while the papers are full of laments that engineers are wanted desperately. Companies take months to make hiring decisions. The word is it's because once hired, it is extremely difficult to lay off. Over 45-50? Don't bother applying. You're too old to learn something new. I've heard that opinion expressed by several people including some who employ. So many Germans finish school around 30 and are too old above 45.
12.18.2006 11:52pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
I just spent a few minutes searching the job listing for Boise at careerbuilder.com--and there's lots of software engineer jobs available here.

You have no idea how the current software engineer market works. A quick look at careerbuilder.com doesn't tell you anything about the market or job opportunities. If you believe the job postings there or on Monster.com you would be eager to become a software engineer and would end up chasing ghosts all over the country. The market is brutal, the posted jobs simply don't exist or if they do, if you don't have the exact qualifications desired, which almost no one ever has, you will not get the job or even a reply as there will be hundreds, if not thousands of inquiries for the posted job. The market is saturated with way too many people chasing way too few jobs.

I got out of software engineering and am back at school getting a master's degree in civil and environmental engineering (hopefully we can't outsource the building of infrastructure in this country). Fortunately, for me, my wife has a steady, secure and comfortable source of income that allows me the luxury of changing careers at the age of 45.

Telling highly skilled middle class professional people with families and disabled wives that they need to take crap jobs or need to move to Boise because you are certain there are jobs there ignores the central problem that stable, good-paying jobs (the exact jobs that globalization was supposed to create) are disappearing quickly.
12.19.2006 9:58am
Tongue in Cheeks:
Those people who claim that they cannot get jobs are full of it! It's always their fault! They're just as lazy as the 25% of the people who were unemployed in the U.S.A. during the depths of the Great Depression.

Software engineers with families and unemployed J.D.s can get jobs at Wal-Mart or McDonalds. They're always hiring!
12.19.2006 11:08am
David Chesler (mail) (www):
I've thought about Boise (for a while I was expert at the internals and secret functions of Laserjets, when I was helping the IBM division that became Lexmark emulate them -- and you know I'd find the politics more palatable than Massachusetts) or more likely Research Triangle. But suppose I move the family. The gains on my house will offset the frictional costs once all is said and done, but that means new schools, my wife has to find a whole new set of doctors to trust, I give up what social network I've got (which has helped in getting more than one job) and it gets an awful lot harder to see our families, including elderly parents. And then what happens when my new Idaho or North Carolina employer has a downturn and lays off workers? (If necessary, we could pack everything in the Conestoga ^h^h^h^h pickup^h^h^h^h minivan and head out on the Cumberland Trail ^h^h^h^h Route 66 ^h^h^h^h I-90, if I thought I'd never get work in Ireland ^h^h^h Oklahoma ^h^h^h Boston again. I've already moved to one high-tech center. I don't believe that moving to another will improve my situation.) If I were single I'd probably enjoy seeing more of the country, living out of a couple of suitcases -- that's not the case.

Telling a professional that McDonald's is hiring is too much like "The people don't have bread? Let them eat cake!" I like driving a bus, but it doesn't provide for my family. (I'm also not complaining about my lot -- I've got a nice house [1955 6 rooms 1/3 acre - no mansion], we can afford to keep it heated, we've got plenty of food on the table, presentable clothing, two working cars [1997 &1998 models, cost $2400 and $2300 - nothing fancy], excellent medical care -- I know I'm living better than 99% of the world, better than any prior generation in my family, but if there is such a shortage of intelligent, skilled engineers, I shouldn't need months to find a job after a layoff [I shouldn't be laid off!], and I shouldn't be living paycheck to paycheck when I am employed. I am not surprised that there are people here, and even more in Germany, who can't get a reasonable job, and who, once they've learned to work the system[*], find it easier to live on the dole.)

[*]As I said, we can't get anything but a handicapped parking permit for my wife's disabilities; when my unemployment insurance ran out it took three visits to a very unpleasant office and a bunch of letters and phone calls to get enough of those food stamps they advertise on the radio to cover three week's of groceries, four months later. But people who haven't even bothered to learn English are living off handouts.
12.19.2006 12:37pm