Last week, the Congressional Budget Office released its report on the budget and economic outlook from 2014 to 2024. Contained within that report was a section on the impact of the Affordable Care Act on the supply of labor, which said this:
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.Whether through a lack of careful reading inspired by hatred of all things ObamaCare or through an immoral attempt to propagandize through outright falsehood, right-wing media seized upon this figure to claim that the Affordable Care Act would lead to a "loss" of over 2 million jobs. The actual report, of course, said nothing of the kind: it said that the newfound ability created by the Affordable Care Act to be able to get health insurance independent of employment would lead to people choosing to supply fewer labor hours. Doug Elmendorf of the Congressional Budget Office even clarified what the report actually said: that people who were only holding down jobs to get the health insurance benefit from them would choose to either stop working, or not work as many hours; but that actual demand for labor would not be impacted. It was, after all, right there in the text of the report:
The estimated reduction stems almost entirely from a net decline in the amount of labor that workers choose to supply, rather than from a net drop in businesses’ demand for labor, so it will appear almost entirely as a reduction in labor force participation and in hours worked relative to what would have occurred otherwise rather than as an increase in unemployment...This debunking of even more Republican falsehoods should have put an end to the attacks on the Affordable Care Act. But instead, Republicans just modified their position, as explained below the fold.
No longer able to claim that the Affordable Care Act would push people out of the labor market or cost people their jobs, the leading intellectuals of the conservative movement shifted their attacks, railing against the precise fact that the law would enable people to work fewer hours:
Now the line of attack on Obamacare is that being able to work less doesn’t build character. Or, in the words of Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, the Affordable Care Act makes it too easy for Americans to choose “not to get on the ladder of life, to begin working, getting the dignity of work, getting more opportunities, rising the income, joining the middle class.”Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina expressed this worldview in the bluntest way possible:
“What the liberals and the Democrats want you to believe is, ‘Well, but you’ll have time to write poetry,’” Gowdy said. “Well, that’s great until you try and buy your grandkid a birthday present or you try and pay the heating bill.”Now, it's obviously ludicrous to suggest that people who are dependent on the income they get from their jobs to pay the heating bill or buy presents for their grandkids will be the ones quitting their jobs or working fewer hours because of the Affordable Care Act. Rather, there is the equivalent of up to 2.5 million full-time workers who would rather not work those hours, but are—either because they would like to retire but have not yet reached Medicare eligibility, or because they want to strike out and become entrepreneurs, or because they would rather work fewer hours and strike a work-life balance that they consider more appropriate. And yet despite the consistent Republican rallying cries of promoting freedom and entrepreneurship, their intellectual leaders are actually arguing that people, and low-wage workers especially, should be coerced into working full-time at jobs that often provide no dignity, just for the sake of knowing that an accident or illness will not completely bankrupt them.
This coercive subtext behind the so-called dignity of work is a nasty, brutish and dark vision for the relationship of ordinary people to the labor market. But even worse, it is not consistently applied. Republicans seem to have no trouble arguing that people on the lower ends of the income scale should learn to appreciate the dignity of work or risk losing their health insurance and being forced into bankruptcy if they have a bad fall while walking down the street; but for some reason, the in-person experience of learning the values of a hard day's labor just doesn't seem to apply to the scions of the privileged. As a matter of fact, the same conservative politicians, thought leaders and activists who decry the idea that people on the lower income brackets might not have to work as many hours are the same ones who advocated to eliminate the estate tax and ensure that the heirs of the one percent would know as little hardship as they possibly could. For Republicans, it seems, wealth is in and of itself a validator of morality and ethics: those who have none must be taught the value of work, by compulsion if necessary, or risk becoming shiftless; but a fat bank account is a vaccine against any such risk, regardless of whether the holder did a single stitch of work to earn it.
If conservative ideology ever was in the business of advocating for increased economic opportunity for the individual and promotion of social mobility, it clearly no longer is. Instead, conservatism now seems to exist solely for the promotion of a plutocratic aristocracy: the wealthy, simply by virtue of being wealthy, are our betters; the poor, meanwhile, must be compelled by external forces to work long hours in the vain hopes of learning the knowledge the wealthy were born with.
This might be a suitable economic vision for the medieval period, or perhaps for the landed gentry of Elizabethan England. But it is not the vision that the United States of this modern century should tolerate.