Turning the “Learned Helplessness” Meme Around
Right-wingers love to use the phrase “learned helplessness” to describe the terrible consequences of extending unemployment benefits for still-jobless Americans. In this narrative, helping jobless people to survive in an economy that is not creating jobs teaches them not to look for work because it’s so much easier to sit on the sofa at home watching Judge Judy while you await the $300-a-week government check that supports you and your family just as fine as did the $420-a-week paycheck that didn’t support you and your family just fine at all.
In this meme, “learned helplessness” occurs as a result of being behaviorally conditioned by repeated attractive stimuli — i.e., getting paid to sit at home and do nothing. In reality, of course, learned helplessness is a concept developed (by Martin Seligman and Steven F. Maier) after they discovered that dogs who had been conditioned to expect an electric shock after hearing a tone later exhibited helpless behavior even when presented with an opportunity to escape the shock.
… They had initially observed helpless behavior in dogs that were classically conditioned to expect an electrical shock after hearing a tone. Later, the dogs were placed in a shuttlebox that contained two chambers separated by a low barrier. The floor was electrified on one side, and not on the other. The dogs previously subjected to the classical conditioning made no attempts to escape, even though avoiding the shock simply involved jumping over a low barrier.In order to investigate this phenomenon, research then devised another experiment. In group one, the dogs were strapped into harnesses for a period of time and then released. The dogs in the second group were placed in the same harnesses, but were subjected to electrical shocks that could be avoided by pressing a panel with their noses. The third group received the same shocks as those in group two, except that those in this group were not able to control the duration of the shock. For those dogs in the third group, the shocks seemed to be completely random and outside of their control.
Later, the dogs were placed in a shuttlebox. Dogs from the first and second group quickly learned that jumping the barrier eliminated the shock. Those from the third group, however, made no attempts to get away from the shocks. Due to their previous experience, they had developed a cognitive expectation that nothing they did would prevent or eliminate the shocks. (Seligman & Maier, 1967).
These dogs did not ‘learn’ helplessness by being repeatedly exposed to pleasant stimuli. They learned helplessness by being repeatedly exposed to aversive stimuli. Aversive stimuli applied randomly. So that they learned that regardless of their actions they had no control over the outcome.
People laid off from their jobs, unemployed for months or even years, do not remain in that condition because they learn to be helpless as a result of getting unemployment benefits, which give them some source of income on a regular basis. They remain in that condition because, despite making every effort — and in many cases, heroic efforts — to find a job, there are no jobs to be found.
Eventually, many people DO stop looking for work after years of searching turns up nothing. But that’s not because of the money they have been getting every week from the Department of Labor. It’s because the economy is not producing enough jobs for all the people who need jobs. The solution, then — or at least one major piece of the solution — is to create more jobs. To those who say that extended unemployment benefits do not help unemployed people find employment, that it helps people in the short term but does not solve the long-term problem, I say, You’re right. Unemployment benefits help people survive, and they ARE stimulative in the sense that they pump money into the economy, but they are not enough by themselves to get our economy back to full employment — or at least as reasonable an approximation of full employment as can be achieved in an economic system that is premised on there being always some level of unemployment and underemployment. For that, we need a robust and effective job creation plan. And no, Virginia, cutting the corporate tax rate, cutting taxes for the wealthy, having Congress review each separate individual new regulation proposal and eliminating as many existing environmental and workplace safety regulations as possible, and privatizing, ending, or cutting essential human needs programs are NOT the way to create jobs in a severe economic recession. That, to quote the righties who don’t know the first thing about basic economics, is Econ 101. It’s also the voice of experience — decades upon decades of experience that clearly demonstrates such policies do. not. work.
Here is what will work:
So someone needs to say the obvious: inventing reasons not to put the unemployed back to work is neither wise nor responsible. It is, instead, a grotesque abdication of responsibility.
What kinds of excuses am I talking about? Well, consider last week’s release of the latest report on the economic outlook by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or O.E.C.D. The O.E.C.D. is basically an intergovernmental think tank; while it has no direct ability to set policy, what it says reflects the conventional wisdom of Europe’s policy elite.
So what did the O.E.C.D. have to say about high unemployment in its member countries? “The room for macroeconomic policies to address these complex challenges is largely exhausted,” declared the organization’s secretary general, who called on countries instead to “go structural” — that is, to focus on long-run reforms that would have little impact on the current employment situation.
And how do we know that there’s no room for policies to put the unemployed back to work? The secretary general didn’t say — and the report itself never even suggests possible solutions to the employment crisis. All it does is highlight the risks, as it sees them, of any departure from orthodox policy.
But then, who is talking seriously about job creation these days? Not the Republican Party, unless you count its ritual calls for tax cuts and deregulation. Not the Obama administration, which more or less dropped the subject a year and a half ago.
The fact that nobody in power is talking about jobs does not mean, however, that nothing could be done.
Bear in mind that the unemployed aren’t jobless because they don’t want to work, or because they lack the necessary skills. There’s nothing wrong with our workers — remember, just four years ago the unemployment rate was below 5 percent.
The core of our economic problem is, instead, the debt — mainly mortgage debt — that households ran up during the bubble years of the last decade. Now that the bubble has burst, that debt is acting as a persistent drag on the economy, preventing any real recovery in employment. And once you realize that the overhang of private debt is the problem, you realize that there are a number of things that could be done about it.
For example, we could have W.P.A.-type programs putting the unemployed to work doing useful things like repairing roads — which would also, by raising incomes, make it easier for households to pay down debt. We could have a serious program of mortgage modification, reducing the debts of troubled homeowners. We could try to get inflation back up to the 4 percent rate that prevailed during Ronald Reagan’s second term, which would help to reduce the real burden of debt.
So there are policies we could be pursuing to bring unemployment down. These policies would be unorthodox — but so are the economic problems we face. And those who warn about the risks of action must explain why these risks should worry us more than the certainty of continued mass suffering if we do nothing.
It’s become political suicide to say this, but those of us who do not have congressional seats to hold on to at any cost, or occupancy rights in the Oval Office that would be endangered by saying the word “jobs” too many times — and that, of course, is the vast majority of Americans — should be speaking out at every opportunity. Because that, at the moment, is the only leverage that might be effective. We should view it as a concrete strategy (emphasis is mine):
If I had to guess, I’d say many White House officials would approve of this kind of approach, but tend not to say so. Why not? Because of political realism — the president and his team don’t see much value in pushing a series of proposals that have no chance of passing Congress. An ambitious approach to lowering unemployment was effectively taken off the table the moment Americans elected a Republican-led House. If voters wanted policymakers to focus on jobs they shouldn’t have backed candidates intent on making unemployment worse.
The administration could still push the issue, even if a jobs agenda can’t pass, but Obama’s team see political risks in such an approach — the more the president sticks his neck out, the more he appears ineffectual when Congress ignores him.
But Krugman urges everyone who still cares about the issue to speak up anyway: “As I see it, policy makers are sinking into a condition of learned helplessness on the jobs issue: the more they fail to do anything about the problem, the more they convince themselves that there’s nothing they could do. And those of us who know better should be doing all we can to break that vicious circle. “