This New York Times editorial tries valiantly to make the case that the recent prediction by the Congressional Budget Office of 2.5 million full-time job losses is a good thing for the affected workers and the economy as a whole:
The Congressional Budget Office estimated on Tuesday that the Affordable Care Act will reduce the number of full-time workers by 2.5 million over the next decade. That is mostly a good thing, a liberating result of the law. Of course, Republicans immediately tried to brand the findings as “devastating” and stark evidence of President Obama’s health care reform as a failure and a job killer. It is no such thing.
The report estimated that — thanks to an increase in insurance coverage under the act and the availability of subsidies to help pay the premiums — many workers who felt obliged to stay in a job that provided health benefits would now be able to leave those jobs or choose to work fewer hours than they otherwise would have. In other words, the report is about the choices workers can make when they are no longer tethered to an employer because of health benefits. The cumulative effect on the labor supply is the equivalent of 2.5 million fewer full-time workers by 2024.
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.
Despite all the whistling as we stroll along the cemetery fence, the editorial does correctly point out that insurance benefits that are tied to particular employers do limit choices for many workers. I’ve made the argument a few times that this is something that unions should be pushing very hard for: to make benefits more portable for both unionized and non-unionized workers. The rest of the editorial isn’t quite as helpful … two and a half million current workers no longer working (and not through a voluntary switch to self-employment or retirement) isn’t the wonderful thing they claim it is. Those people and their families will still need income to provide themselves with food, shelter, and all the other necessities of modern life. Tough to do that without visible means of support.
Update: At the National Journal, James Oliphant rallies to the White House’s defence during what he calls “the worst day that Obamacare has had in weeks — and that’s saying something.”
To debate that point, the White House supplied as its first responder Jason Furman, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, an academic and policymaker schooled in the intricacies of the labor market. Furman disputed any reading of the report that said the ACA was a net drag on the economy — but often doing so in head-scratching language of a Washington insider.
At one point, a reporter at Tuesday’s briefing asked Furman in frustration, “What the heck do you mean?”
Furman’s presence, however, outlined in neon the problem the Obama administration has been having since the ACA became law: a persistent inability to detail its benefits in language that resonates with the public. And in its defense, the ACA’s multiple mechanisms are not the easiest to explain. To that end, its critics, who often have relied upon hyperbole and scare tactics, have always held the political advantage.
But sometimes you just have to punch the bully in the nose — and Furman wasn’t the person for the job. That was the case Tuesday. The first takeaway from a complex CBO report was that the office had concluded that Obamacare is going to be a job-killer. Period. Full stop. It fell upon Furman — along with liberal bloggers — to attempt to explain that, no, it’s more complicated than that.
Follow along: The report doesn’t say that the ACA will result in 2 million jobs lost by 2017, but projects there will be 2 million fewer workers in the workforce, the White House says (a number it doesn’t necessarily agree with). It’s the difference, Furman underscored, between labor supply and labor demand. And they aren’t “jobs,” he reiterated, they are “FTEs.” (Full-time equivalents, if you are scoring at home.)
In other words, he explained, businesses will still want as many workers as ever, but the ACA will result in an increasing number of workers deciding to take themselves either entirely out of the job market or working fewer hours. Why? Because they may decide to keep their income below a certain level in order to qualify for government help to buy health insurance on the exchanges.
This is a good thing, Furman said, because the ACA will give workers more flexibility, whether they want to become entrepreneurs or take another, lower-paying job. And again, the press corps had some trouble with this concept. It’s good for someone to take a lower-paying job? And it’s good that the law encourages them to take it?