Papers and pundits screamed it today, in massive headlines. The conservatives cackled it. "OBAMACARE WILL MEAN 2 MILLION FEWER FULL-TIME WORKERS." It was bullshit, born of the media's oversimplification and the right wing's malicious stupidity. The truth is good news.
The Congressional Budget Office released a report today forecasting the economy's prospects. Much of it dealt with the effects of health care reform. On Page 117, in Appendix C ("Labor Market Effects of the Affordable Care Act"), the CBO offered a single sentence that sent the Beltway into a batshit tizzy:
The reduction in CBO's projections of hours worked represents a decline in the number of full-time-equivalent workers of about 2.0 million in 2017, rising to about 2.5 million in 2024.
JOBS LOST! MILLIONS OF FULL-TIME WORKERS SIDELINED BY OBAMACARE! It blasted across every major paper's front page and hundreds of conserva-pundits' and Republicans' Twitter accounts. Here's the Washington Post's lede:
The Affordable Care Act will reduce the number of full-time workers by more than 2 million in coming years, congressional budget analysts said Tuesday, a finding that sent the White House scrambling to defend a law that has bedeviled President Obama for years.
Here's the New York Times:
A new analysis from the Congressional Budget Office says that the Affordable Care Act will result in more than 2 million fewer full-time workers in the next several years, providing Republican opponents of the law a powerful political weapon leading up to this year's midterm elections.
But instead of salivating and pivoting immediately to the right-left political impact of the report, perhaps the reporters should have spent more time, like, reporting on the report itself. What did that 2 million figure represent, exactly? Not real workers, but an "equivalent" expression of how many fewer hours we would all be working. TPM's Dylan Scott was the first reporter to notice something amiss, once the hysterical news cycle had expended itself. Here's what the CBO actually said:
CBO estimates that the ACA will reduce the total number of hours worked, on net, by about 1.5 percent to 2.0 percent during the period from 2017 to 2024, almost entirely because workers will choose to supply less labor—given the new taxes and other incentives they will face and the financial benefits some will receive.
When workers no longer have to rely on full-time employers to get affordable health care, they suddenly have the freedom to not work full-time. That could mean people stuck in crappy hourly jobs 40 hours a week at, say, the local big-box store. Or creatives jammed in underpaying urban admin assistant jobs. Indeed, the CBO adds:
Because the largest declines in labor supply will probably occur among lower-wage workers… the impact on the overall economy will be proportionally smaller than the reduction in hours worked.
In other words, people who qualify for expanded Medicaid coverage could choose to scale back their hours at work, could pursue better hourly wages for half-time jobs, could save by keeping the kids out of day care a few more times a week. People will have more time, and the economy won't have much less money for it. CBO again:
The estimated reduction stems almost entirely from a net decline in the amount of labor that workers choose to supply, rather than a net drop in business' demand for labor, so it will appear almost entirely as a reduction in labor force participation… rather than as an increase in unemployment… or underemployment.
As Scott says, the CBO "specifically undermines" the claims made by the papers and pundits. Obamacare will give more of us more time away from work. This is a good thing.
And yet. Here we are, listening to Lindsey Graham and Erick Erickson bitch about the poor, poor workers that will lose jobs in a flagging economy because of one sentence out of context from a several hundred page report and several complicit reporters but mostly OBAMACARE.
The problem here is truly philosophical. It is ideological. It is rooted in the two Americas' distressingly divergent answers to a simple question: What is a job for?
For pundits and pointy-headed analysts, it's to keep The Economy and Growth flowing. That is its good. That is its end. Workers are the means. For most workers (the vast majority of whom aren't leaving their families and schlepping through megastorms to cubicles or factories for the love), the job is the means to a different, individualized end: the ability to buy one's own way, to keep loved ones fed and happy and healthy, to stave off poverty.
So what the CBO said today, in essence, was that if this Obamacare thing works out, people won't need to work full-time jobs just to keep health care benefits. They may actually be able to spend more time with those families. They may be able to freelance, to split hours between two parents rather than having one stay-at-home parent and one full-time earner. They may be able to take a chance on that novel or Etsy shop, instead of staying at the office until death.
That's not what conservatives hear, though, because that's not what conservatives care about. Their concern for people is subverted by their concern for commercial output, or economic abstractions that appear to impact commercial output. It wasn't always so; the original argument for Adam Smithian, invisible-hand laissez-faire capitalism was that it's the best system for everyone concerned. That is no longer the economics of conservatism; to even hark back to "the good of all" is a marker of socialism now. The new capitalism is Ayn Rand's, based on the principle that government is bad and private enterprise is good. All facts, all figures must be processed through this worldview before being regurgitated onto Main Street.
This paradigm and its macroeconomic lingo are so pervasive that it's now promulgated by an "objective" media on front pages of newspapers as immutable fact. So that the Times, before clarifying that 2 million actual jobs held by existent people won't really be lost, finds it necessary to use the figure, and to add that it provides "a powerful political weapon" to foes of Obamacare.
It does, but only if you're an idiot. The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the other media bigs are not idiots. But they're playing an idiot's game.
[Photo credit: AP]