The party of less work

  • By Rich Lowry
  • Sunday, February 9, 2014 5:05pm
  • Opinion

The Democrats once styled themselves the party of workers. Now, they are the party of people who would have been workers, if it hadn’t been for Obamacare.

The Congressional Budget Office released a new analysis of the economic effects of the health-care law that estimates that it will reduce the number of workers, in effect, by 2.5 million in 2024.

This unleashed a torrent of arguments from the Democrats implicitly denigrating the value of work. Perhaps not since Southern “fire-eaters” attacked Northern “wage slavery” in the mid-19th century has a good honest day’s work been talked about so dismissively.

The old jobs crisis was people not having jobs; the new jobs crisis is people having to work. The party devoted to combating inequality is now blithely unconcerned about a law discouraging people — especially people down the income scale — from earning more. So much for its championing of economic mobility.

White House press secretary Jay Carney declared the CBO report a validation of the law: “We noted that as part of this new day in health care, Americans would no longer be trapped in a job just to provide coverage for their families and would have the opportunity to pursue their dreams. This CBO report bears that out.”

If only the number of people effectively dissuaded from working were 5 million, or 7.5 million, the health-care law would be an even more stunning triumph of sound public policy and true American values.

A few caveats are in order: We aren’t talking about jobs that are eliminated in the usual sense of discouraging employers from hiring, as some Republican talking points suggested. And the 2.5 million number isn’t for jobs per se, but for “full-time equivalent” positions, i.e., the cumulative lost hours of millions of people deciding to work less.

Nonetheless, the number is devastating. Democrats like Jay Carney want to pass it all off as ending the “job lock” that keeps people in a job only to preserve their health insurance. There is a little something to this, but it isn’t the main problem. Obamacare has created a vast apparatus of subsidies, penalties and taxes that is effectively anti-work.

The CBO explains that Obamacare’s subsidies, by giving people more resources, allow “some people to maintain the same standard of living while working less.” And the way they phase out creates another disincentive, as “subsidies decline with rising income (and increase as income falls), thus making work less attractive.” The penalties and taxes, meanwhile, “will ultimately induce some workers to supply less labor.”

Democrats consider all this and pronounce themselves well-pleased. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., sees only upside in people working less: “What that means is instead they might be able to tuck their child in bed at night and read a bedtime story, or go to an activity, which means they’re better off.”

Harry Reid found his inner libertarian: “We live in a country where we should be free agents. People can do what they want.” Obviously, if you are afraid to earn more because government will take away a subsidy, you aren’t a free agent.

White House economic adviser Jason Furman made an inapt comparison. “Getting rid of Social Security and Medicare would cause more 95-year-olds to work,” he said. “You wouldn’t judge whether Social Security or Medicare are good or bad based on what they do to labor supply.”

No, you wouldn’t — because they are programs for the elderly. Discouraging work among 95-year-olds is different than discouraging work among people in the prime of their lives. No one told us when the bill was being considered that Obamacare would have some of the same effects as a retirement program.

The latest CBO numbers are part of the growing list of facts about Obamacare that, if they had been widely acknowledged before its passage, would have doomed it in Congress. But that debate seems so long ago. It was back when both political parties professed to be pro-work.

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

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