Unemployment: a love story

A record-shattering 22 million Americans filed for unemployment insurance in recent weeks.

Nobody wants to be in this position. Nobody wants that record.

I think that’s why I paid close attention this weekend to a story about about the two lawyers who were basically the mother and father of unemployment insurance in the United States.

It's an interesting tale. It's also a bit of a love story.

‘Brainy and shy; handsome and outgoing’

It starts almost a century ago, when a young prospective law student named Elizabeth Brandeis ("E.B" to her friends), had her heart set on Harvard.

Little problem: Harvard refused to admit women to its law school in the 1920s.

They wouldn't even make an exception for E.B., whose father was Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis (a Harvard man himself).

Instead, she enrolled at the University of Wisconsin law school in 1923. There, she met her future husband, a fellow student named Paul Raushenbush.

“She was brainy and shy, her hair long and dark,” as Michael S. Rosenwald put it in The Washington Post. “He was handsome and outgoing. On hikes and canoe outings, they fell in love romantically and intellectually.”

Sounds lovely. They graduated, married, and both became professors at Wisconsin.

Then, they found their calling.

A few other people

Two more people enter the story here (although not the love affair; that would be awkward):

  • John R. Commons: a Wisconsin law professor who had tried but failed to advocate for an unemployment insurance law. E.B. and Paul Raushenbush became his acolytes.

  • Philip La Follette, a fellow Wisconsin Law graduate whose late father had been the state's governor and served in the U.S. Senate, and whose brother was a sitting U.S. senator at the time.

La Follette wanted to run for governor, and he wanted to pass unemployment insurance legislation as part of his platform.

So, knowing his friends E.B. and Paul Raushenbush’s work with Commons, he asked them to draft something that could make it through the legislature.

They dove in, and included a key provision that became highly controversial (but survived): the idea that the whole thing had to be funded by employers, rather than employees, so that employers would have a disincentive to cut jobs.

La Follette won the election, and E.B. and Paul's proposed legislation garnered just enough support. It became Wisconsin law in 1932.

Three years later, when President Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act of 1935, that law included a national unemployment insurance policy, too—which was based largely, in turn, on the Wisconsin law.

Sailing and bridge and croquet

“Their story is absolutely staggering to think about right now,” E.B. and Paul Raushenbush’s grandson told the Post. “It was their life’s work to make laws like this available to everyone.”

I find it interesting too. Maybe not, “absolutely staggering,” but it’s family, so we’ll allow it.

Tucked away at the end of all of this however, I find perhaps the most endearing part.

It’s that growing up, their grandson thought of E.B. and Paul not as lawyers or champions of the working class, but for other things: “the simple pleasures they all enjoyed together. Games of bridge. Sailing. Croquet.”

A lot of people who never heard of E.B. and Paul Raushenbush, and who never in a million years thought they’d need to file for unemployment, might agree that they owe them a small debt of gratitude.

And for the rest of us, a remainder: Everyone you meet has a story. Maybe even a consequential one you knew nothing about.

7 other things worth your time

  • The CEO and founder of Shake Shack say they’re giving back their PPP loan, because they managed to secure private funding and they think smaller businesses need it more. (LinkedIn)

  • How the WNBA pulled off a virtual draft. (Just fine, and the two top picks were teammates at Oregon). It’s a preview, maybe, of how things will go for the NFL. (CBS Sports)

  • Covid-19 and the NBA’s new developmental league strategy could very well drive a stake through college basketball’s “one-and-done” system, in which athletes play a single season of NCAA ball in order to be eligible for the draft. (Wall Street Journal, $)

  • Nobody can go to the gym, and now 24 Hour Fitness is on the brink of bankruptcy. (CNBC)

  • Protestors who want states to “open up” faster clashed with health care workers over the weekend in Denver and other cities. (The Daily Mail)

  • Reports say three Minnesota brothers allegedly recruited thousands on Facebook to organize the protests. I don’t know the answer, but I’m curious whether this is just astroturf, or else a lucky group of people who picked the right movement to get ahead of. (The Washington Post, $)

  • The top admiral in the U.S. Navy will soon decide the fate of the ship captain who was fired after pleading for help on the USS Theodore Roosevelt. (Associated Press)

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