Laffer: Unemployment Benefits Aren't Stimulus

The current debate over extending and increasing federal unemployment benefits encapsulates the disagreement between the Democrats in power in Washington and their Republican opponents. What the consequences will be of raising unemployment benefits in today’s depressed economy is at issue.

The most obvious argument against extending or raising unemployment benefits is that it will make being unemployed either more attractive or less unattractive, and thereby lead to higher unemployment. Empirical research supports this view.

The Democratic retort is that the economy today is so different from the past that we have to suspend our traditional understanding of economics. With five job seekers for every job opening, the unemployed are desperate for work and increasing unemployment benefits will have very little if any disincentive effect. This view hinges on a total change in employee behavior from “normal” times to the current period of “the Great Recession.”

On the face of it, the idea that higher unemployment benefits won’t lead to more unemployment doesn’t make much sense. Imagine what the unemployment rate would look like if unemployment benefits were universally $150,000 per year. My guess is we’d have a heck of a lot more unemployment.

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