I have to admit, the past week for me has been quite an emotional roller coaster.

As a state employee who looks to be getting a large pay cut, my morale is low.

As someone who teaches health economics, I can hardly think of a more salient example of the struggles we face with rising health care expenditures.

But as an economist, I’ve been infuriated by the level of debate.

I’ve spent too much of my time trying to raise the level of discussion on both sides in the comments section of this newspaper’s website or the Facebook walls of former students.

We need to change the nature of the debate.

In December, Congress moved to extend unemployment insurance benefits to another group of recipients for an unprecedented 99 months. Republicans claimed that this would only delay recipients’ job searches and prop up an already high unemployment rate.

Republicans were right. Unemployment insurance artificially reduces the incentive to take up employment. This is supported by ample economic research.

But Democrats cried foul. They argued that failure to extend benefits would throw thousands off unemployment insurance, resulting in painful decreases in their family’s income, and the potential macroeconomic consequences of falling consumption.

Democrats were right, too, and there is plenty of research to back that argument.

Why the seemly contradictory conclusions? That’s because unemployment insurance is a blunt policy tool.

But the debate shouldn’t be about extending or not extending unemployment insurance. The debate should be about how we sharpen the blunt tool, about how we get the good things out of the insurance without creating the bad things.

Sadly we seem far from that type of discussion. It would never fit on a bumper sticker.

Wisconsin’s troubles provide us with other examples of how we need to change the nature of the debate. Let’s look at collective bargaining and the existence of public unions. Unions are complicated entities — and much like unemployment insurance — they do both good things and bad things.

Looking specifically at the K-12 teachers union, because they appear to be Gov. Scott Walkers’ primary target, we hear about their resistance to firing bad teachers. And the governor decries Milwaukee Public School teachers trying to get Viagra covered with their health insurance.

Unions are blunt instruments. They are designed to protect workers’ rights, but in so doing so, they often protect bad behavior and bad workers.

The debate should be about how we reduce the bad things that they do and improve the good things they do.

How do we sharpen the tool?

Taggert J. Brooks teaches economics at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.


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