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The Beltway Bubble And Unemployment

Beltway Bubble

First Posted: 03/04/11 01:00 PM ET Updated: 05/25/11 07:35 PM ET

Yesterday, The Nation's Chris Hayes published a piece that discussed the "disconnect" between Washington lawmakers and their constituents throughout the country on the the unemployment crisis.

Felt searingly throughout the nation, and especially so in isolated pockets, concern over the crisis seems to be largely declining inside the Beltway bubble, as "lawmakers of both parties have jettisoned the jobs agenda in favor of an austerity program that will barely reduce the deficit but will almost certainly hurt employment." Along the way, Hayes points out the unemployment rate among Americans with "four-year college degrees" is 4.2 percent, and the unemployment rate in the DC-Arlington-Alexandria area is a mere 5.7 percent.

Hayes goes on:

What these two numbers add up to is a governing elite that is profoundly alienated from the lived experiences of the millions of Americans who are barely surviving the ravages of the Great Recession. As much as the pernicious influence of big money and the plutocrats' pseudo-obsession with budget deficits, it is this social distance between decision-makers and citizens that explains the almost surreal detachment of the current Washington political conversation from the economic realities working-class, middle-class and poor people face.

Hayes concludes: "The people running the country are not viscerally experiencing the depredations of this ghastly economic winter, and they lack what might be called the 'fierce urgency of now' in getting the heat turned back on."

Combine the change in conversation with those unemployment rates and it becomes a decent argument.

And yet, I don't find it entirely convincing. While most of our lawmakers obviously spend the bulk of their time in the DC-Metro area, they all have offices in their districts back home, and they all have people on staff who work closely with their constituents. Gabrielle Giffords' aide Gabe Zimmerman, killed in the Tucson shootings, had a great reputation in the community for his constituent work. Heck, let's not forget that Gabrielle Giffords herself was shot during a public meet-and-greet, outside the Washington bubble.

I'd imagine within the cohort of Congresspeople, you'll find individuals who are very close to their voters and highly motivated to ameliorate their unemployment problems. We don't know who measures up and who falls victim to the bubble because it's an under-reported matter.

Perhaps the party that's really to blame here isn't our lawmakers, but a group of people who Hayes only touches on in passing who most definitely reside within that bubble: the Beltway media. Turn on the teevee on Sunday morning and you will -- I promise you -- hear all sorts of discussions about the unemployment crisis.

But they all take place 30,000 feet in the air. The crisis is never captured as a thing that impacts ordinary Americans. It is always discussed in terms strictly defining it as something that impacts the electoral prospects of politicians. Pundits hardly ever give the crisis a face.

And so, if a political figure says something crazy, like, the unemployed should have their UI benefits taken away as a measure of "tough love" because it's disincentivizing them from finding employment, you'll have an argument in the media over whether the person is being mean-spirited or not, or whether it will win or lose an election. You might be fortunate enough to hear someone mention the fact that currently, there are five job seekers for every job opening.

What you won't see is anyone go out and prove the unemployed are, in fact, busting their asses to find work and get off the dole, because you have to be a) interested in the lives of ordinary people, and b) willing to cast a wide net across the country.

Largely, the Beltway media isn't that interested in any of this, so a larger conversation about how the economic crisis impacts people at street level never gets started.

Instead, we hear about how deficits (the Federal one, not your household one) are terrifying, TARP was a huge success, wars are something that happen to other people and which we have an infinite supply of money to fund, and the high unemployment rate mainly impacts Obama's re-election hopes. (Also, you hear complaints about how a once-in-a-decade blizzard in Washington critically impacted Chris Matthews commute and Sally Quinn's social calendar.)

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