During the recent fight over extending unemployment benefits, conservatives trotted out the shibboleth that says the program fosters sloth. Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., for instance, said added unemployment benefits mean people are "encouraged not to go look for work." Columnist Pat Buchanan said expanding these benefits mean "more people will hold off going back looking for a job." And Fox News' Charles Payne applauded the effort to deny future unemployment checks because he said it would compel layabouts "to get off the sofa."
The thesis undergirding all the rhetoric was summed up by conservative commentator Ben Stein, who insisted that "the people who have been laid off and cannot find work are generally people with poor work habits and poor personalities."
The idea is that unemployment has nothing to do with structural economic forces or rigged public policies and everything to do with individual motivation. Yes, we're asked to believe that the 15 million jobless Americans are all George Costanzas - parasitic loafers occasionally pretending to seek work as latex salesmen, but really just aiming to decompress on a refrigerator-equipped recliner during a lifelong Summer of George.
Of course, this storyline makes no sense. From liberal Paul Krugman to archconservative Alan Greenspan, economists agree that joblessness is not caused by unemployment benefits. With five applicants for every one job opening, the overarching problem is a lack of available positions - not a dearth of personal initiative.
Why, then, is the myth so resonant that polls now show more than a third of America opposes extending unemployment benefits? Part of it is the sheer ignorance that naturally festers in a country of cable-TV junkies. But three more subtle forces are also at work.
See what I'm talking about in my new syndicated newspaper column.