Port: You can't tout expanded unemployment benefits without acknowledging where the money comes from

The government cannot spend anything it doesn't first take from someone else.

CS Hagen Forum photo -- Tim Mathern
North Dakota Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, speaks at NDSU's Memorial Union in February 2020 before U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar's arrival. Forum file photo
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MINOT, N.D. — Sen. Tim Mathern, a Democrat from Fargo, would like Gov. Doug Burgum to reinstate the pandemic-era federal "top off" to state unemployment benefits.

These federal benefits, which extended the duration of the unemployment benefit and added an additional $300-400 in weekly payments on top of them, will end in North Dakota on June 19 . After that date, unemployment benefits will revert to their pre-pandemic levels.

Mathern doesn't want that to happen, and while that's not surprising given his political proclivities (our liberal friends always want to put truth to Ronald Reagan's maxim about government programs being the nearest thing to eternal life on Earth), his economic justifications are nonsensical.

"Sadly this takes $104 million dollars from the pockets of North Dakota workers, but that’s not all. When North Dakotans spend money, they generate about $1.61 in economic activity for every dollar spent," he wrote in a recent letter to the editor which was also promoted by his political party. "In other words, North Dakota’s local restaurants, main street businesses, our local drug stores, and gas stations are missing out on $270 million in economic activity."


You know you're in trouble when liberals begin using the voodoo math of the economic development lobbyists, but let's set aside whatever foibles we may have with Mathern's assertions about economic multipliers.

Let's also set aside Mathern's implicit argument that it's somehow desirable to have the government paying citizens to shop at gas stations instead of urging them toward gainful employment.

How does one go about touting the benefits of government spending without noting their costs?

Don't get me wrong, it's a fashionable thing to do in politics these days, even for Republicans who, addled as they are by a virulent strain of Trumpist populism have stopped even pretending as though they care about deficit spending, but then politics are divorced from reality.

What politicians say about how things work, and how they actually work, are two distinct categories of information that overlap only occasionally.

Here's some truth from the how-things-actually-work category: The government cannot spend anything it doesn't first take from someone else. You cannot tout the economic activity which emanates from the government giving money to people without also acknowledging the economic activity destroyed when is taken from someone else.

It amounts, as Frederic Bastiat put it , to calling it "a good thing to break windows" because it "causes money to circulate."


What enables politicians like Mathern to engage in this sort of economic fabulism is our great national acquiescence to deficit spending. We pretend as though this federal spending is free money because the politicians are essentially putting it on the federal credit card.

The federal government collects about $4 trillion in revenue per year (that's me rounding up), and the national debt is closing in on about $30 trillion. This means that our federal government has already spent every tax dollar you and I will pay for the next seven and a half years.

At some point, just like with your credit cards, the bill for that fiscal folly will come due.

In the meantime, politicians like Mathern pretend like it's free money.

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Rob Port, founder of, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at .

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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