Commentary Magazine


Do We Want to Free Americans from Work?

The response from the White House and liberal outlets to yesterday’s Congressional Budget Office report that predicted a loss of a staggering 2.3 million full-time jobs as a result of the implementation of ObamaCare was every bit as astonishing as the report itself. Rather than facing up to the sobering news and acknowledging that the job loss was a disastrous, if unintended consequence of the misnamed Affordable Care Act, liberals cheered. Or at least pretended to cheer.

We were told the loss of all these jobs is good because it means Americans who maintained full-time employment in order to keep their health insurance no longer need be “tied” to their jobs. ObamaCare now gives them the “freedom” to work less, pursue their dreams, or just kick back and enjoy life without the drudgery involved in productive employment thanks to the president’s signature health-care legislation. Viewed this way, it’s not job loss but a glorious liberation from the burdens of “job lock.”

A White House economic adviser put it this way: 

It reflects the fact that workers have a new set of options and are making the best choices that they can choose to make for themselves given those options.

More articulate, if no less problematic, was this explanation from the New York Times editorial page:

The new law will free people, young and old, to pursue careers or retirement without having to worry about health coverage. Workers can seek positions they are most qualified for and will no longer need to feel locked into a job they don’t like because they need insurance for themselves or their families. It is hard to view this as any kind of disaster.

This transparent partisan spin is unconvincing, not only because it is rooted in a reality that has less to do with the plight of most working people than of elites who look forward to prosperous retirements once their company goes public. The true disaster here is the reality of another massive government program that not only burdens employers and makes them less inclined to offer benefits but has also created a widespread disincentive for people to work. The CBO numbers illustrate once again that ObamaCare is primarily a redistributionist program that helps a small group of people but penalizes an equal or greater number while placing an intolerable burden on the economy.

As our John Podhoretz said in a column published today in the New York Post, the impact of ObamaCare on work choices is no different from any other “government handout” in that it can give people a good reason not to work since doing so would actually result in a loss of income rather than a net gain. But since this financial assistance is underwritten by higher taxes as well as increased health-care costs for those not receiving the subsidy, the result also discourages productive economic activity at the other end of the spectrum.

One of the president’s evergreen themes is that the goal of his health-care legislation and his entire economic program is to help hard-working Americans. But, as the CBO demonstrates, ObamaCare’s impact on the economy reveals is that it will punish those who work and encourages some to stop. This will, as Ross Douthat argues elsewhere in today’s Times, hurt far more than it helps:

Given the current economic landscape, especially — in which persistently high unemployment coexists with a growing population of workers too discouraged to even look for work — the size and scope of a work-discouraging effect matters a great deal: The bigger the effect, the more likely that the people dropping out aren’t just, say, parents cutting hours to spend more time at home while the other spouse works full time, but people we should want to be attached to the workforce, for their own long term good and the good of the economy as well.

While liberals are lauding an economic disincentive to work, for weeks they have also been arguing that precisely this outcome is inapplicable when discussing legislation to indefinitely extend unemployment benefits indefinitely. When conservatives pointed to economic studies that proved that creating a system under which benefits were transformed from a temporary measure to a permanent subsidy would mean that the long-term unemployed would be less likely to search for work, liberals dismissed this as a slander against the unemployed. But economic facts are not as pliable as liberal talking points would have them. One cannot simultaneously explain ObamaCare job losses as a beneficial result of a disincentive to work while simultaneously insisting that there is no such effect when discussing the unemployed.

As the CBO made clear, we are just now starting to comprehend how disastrous the unintended consequences of ObamaCare will be. The job loss numbers paint a picture of a country where work will be discouraged and productivity penalized. A proper understanding of the long-term problems this will create for the nation goes beyond the political impact of ObamaCare. Americans don’t need to be freed from work. A government that sees this as a beneficial development is one that has not merely lost touch with the basic middle class values it claims to champion but is also one that feels no compunction at putting the nation on a path to certain economic ruin.

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