I’ve already written about my own personal adventure with unemployment benefits.

The Wall Street Journal has a piece today that provides the policy ballast to what I wrote about my own experience. I observed that benefits soften the blow of being laid off, but that, when the benefits are coming in, you search for the ideal job rather than a mere job. The WSJ makes this point:

The unemployment-insurance program involves a balance between compassion-providing for persons temporarily without work-and efficiency. The loss in efficiency results partly because the program subsidizes unemployment, causing insufficient job-search, job-acceptance and levels of employment. A further inefficiency concerns the distortions from the increases in taxes required to pay for the program.

Author Robert Barro, a Harvard economics professor and Hoover Institute fellow (now there’s a combination), argues that during a recession, when poor employment numbers reflect weak economic conditions rather than a decision in favor of leisure, it’s okay to extend benefits somewhat. But not as long as the administration wants to!

Barro  writes:

[W]e have never experienced anything close to the blanket extension of eligibility to nearly two years. We have shifted toward a welfare program that resembles those in many Western European countries.

The administration has argued that the more generous unemployment-insurance program could not have had much impact on the unemployment rate because the recession is so severe that jobs are unavailable for many people. This perspective is odd on its face because, even at the worst of the downturn, the U.S. labor market featured a tremendous amount of turnover in the form of large numbers of persons hired and separated every month.

For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that, near the worst of the recession in March 2009, 3.9 million people were hired and 4.7 million were separated from jobs. This net loss of 800,000 jobs in one month indicates a very weak economy-but nevertheless one in which 3.9 million people were hired. A program that reduced incentives for people to search for and accept jobs could surely matter a lot here.

Moreover, although the peak unemployment rate (thus far) of 10.1% in October 2009 is very disturbing, the rate was even higher in the 1982 recession (10.8% in November-December 1982). Thus, there is no reason to think that the United States is in a new world in which incentives provided by more generous unemployment-insurance programs do not matter much for unemployment.

Another reason to be skeptical about the administration’s stance is that generous unemployment-insurance programs have been found to raise unemployment in many Western European countries in which unemployment rates have been far higher than the current U.S. rate. In Europe, the influence has worked particularly through increases in long-term unemployment. So the key question is what happened to long-term unemployment in the United States during the current recession?