Doing more with less

A manifesto for the happily unemployed.

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When the federal economic stimulus package hit the news in January, my latest run on unemployment was just going dry, and the mere prospect of getting another job was enough to make my testicles retract into my body. When reports surfaced that a three- or six-month (!!) unemployment extension was going to be part of the package, it seemed like government was finally doing something for the little guy, instead of just the fat cats and whiny Christians. I spent the next two weeks Google News–ing "unemployment extension economic stimulus" every 10 minutes.

When the package including the extension failed by one vote, I was so fucking pissed at the United States government that if an al-Qaeda recruiter had pitched me at that moment, I'd be in the Afghanistan desert as we speak, screaming Arabic at the top of my lungs while bayoneting an Uncle Sam mannequin.

I've been on unemployment three times in the past six years. Each time was better than the last, and each time I stayed on until the last cent was exhausted. I didn't even try to get a job; it was a paid vacation. This is somewhat unusual from what I can tell. There's a deep vein of antipathy in this country toward collecting checks from the government, especially in precincts that tend to skew rightward. Politicians imply that it's un-American for an individual to milk the government, all while jacking up corporate welfare for their campaign contributors. And your uncle who cheered at the end of Easy Rider? He insists that if he had to obliterate 40 years of his life punching a clock, why should you goddamn hippies have it any better?

This brand of puritanism has gained traction among the gullible masses, including those I count as friends. Around the same time I got fired from a start-up in Herndon, Va. — the second of my three stints — a wave of layoffs claimed several in my circle. Most of them stayed on unemployment for only a few scant weeks before getting another shit job they immediately began bitching about. When I asked why, they muttered various reasons like "not wanting to be on welfare" or "wanting to work for a living." One even fretted about "what her parents would think."

Given a choice between getting a check every week for doing nothing and getting a check every week for flushing 40 hours of the prime of their lives down the toilet, they chose the latter. I mean, what kind of self-hating, masochistic Protestant bullshit is that?

Not only do I feel no guilt whatsoever about sucking from the state's teat, I feel that I'm absolutely entitled to it. First of all, the employer that fired me pays for half of my unemployment, and fuck them.

Second of all, it's really my money in the first place. See, your employer never pays you what you're worth — there's a surplus, some of which goes toward overhead and various other business costs, and the rest of which is kept as profit. (This is what Marx was referring to when he talked about "exploitation of the workers.") A tiny fraction of this surplus—which, again, has been skimmed off of my labor — is put into a government—mandated account to go toward unemployment checks for fired workers. So yeah, it's my money. Give it back. And since most people's lives are so devoid of meaning that they'd rather go directly into another shitty job than be forced to confront the sheer emptiness of their existence, most of that money never even gets distributed.

The other half of my unemployment is paid for by taxes. I pay taxes, but I don't have kids who go to public school, I don't have a car that depreciates the roads, Social Security (which I'm paying into) is going to be belly up long before I retire, so my taxes are basically being taken from me and given to other people anyway. And I hate to be "that guy," but we're flushing half a billion dollars a day in Iraq, and you're begrudging me a few hundred a week?

The most oft-heard complaint about unemployment is that it's not enough to live on. Generally it's about half of what you made on the job, capped at around $400 a week. (Before my payments ran out in January, I was getting $270 a week.) I guess if you have kids to support or a lot of debt to pay down, $400 a week is probably not a livable income. So I hope buying shoes on credit and not pulling out was worth being chained to a desk for the rest of your life.

For those of us who haven't irreversibly fucked up our lives, $400 a week is doable. While you'll have to cut back, you'll find out that pretty much all the shit you spent your disposable income on — eating out, drinks, purchases from the "As Seen on TV!" product line — is no longer so important once you escape the 9-to-5 gulag.

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