Has anyone in Washington noticed that 20% of American men are not working? That’s right. One out of five men in this country are collecting unemployment, in prison, on disability, operating in the underground economy, or getting by on the paychecks of wives or girlfriends or parents. The equivalent number in 1970, according to the McKinsey Global Institute, was 7%.

Both political parties have proven their talent in ginning up outrage over the federal budget, whether it’s spiraling spending or millionaires collecting tax breaks on private jets. So today a tiresome, and dangerous, debt drama unfolds in real time, freezing leaders in both parties in their respective partisan corners. Are these same leaders capable of confronting the fearsome fact that 4.3 million Americans have been jobless not just for months–but going on years? We are in danger of losing a generation of work-habituated Americans, especially men–and lawmakers can’t see their way past November, 2012.

The longer a worker is unemployed, the farther he or she falls behind in sellable skills in a fast-paced global economy. But there is an even more fundamental question behind the rise in long-term employed rates: Are our public policies contributing to the rise of millions of Americans who lose the habit of work?

Whether you believe (as some economists do) that unemployment insurance discourages immediate job searching—or not—it’s worth asking whether the American “unemployment” system should more closely follow a program like Germany’s “re-employment” system, which cut stubborn long-term unemployment rates in that country.

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