Liberals, Conservatives, and the Meaning of Work
It isn't often that we spend an entire week talking about a Congressional Budget Office report and its implications, but the one currently occupying Washington's attention—about the effects of the Affordable Care Act on the labor force—is actually pretty revealing. To catch you up, the CBO said that due to the fact that under the ACA people are no longer tied to jobs they'd prefer to leave because they can't get health insurance on the individual market ("job lock"), many will do things like retire early, take time off to stay at home with kids, or quit and start businesses. They projected that these departures will add up to the equivalent of 2 to 2.5 million full-time positions. At first, Republicans cried "Obamacare will kill 2 million jobs!", but when everyone, including the CBO's director, said that was a blatantly misleading reading of what the report actually said, they changed their tune. And here's where it gets interesting, because this debate is getting to the heart of what work means, what freedom is—and for whom—and just what kind of an economy we want to have.
Paul Ryan may have been the first Republican to articulate the new attack based on the CBO's report, when in a hearing on Wendnesday he lamented that fewer Americans would "get on the ladder of life, to begin working, getting the dignity of work, getting more opportunities, rising the income, joining the middle class." The argument was quickly picked up by others. "I think any law you pass that discourages people from working can't be a good idea. Why would we want to do that? " asked Senator Roy Blunt on Fox News Sunday. Representative Tom Cole said the same thing on This Week: "Anything that discourages work—and that's essentially what the CBO found, that this discourages some people from working, not a good thing at a time when the economy's still struggling." Representative Trey Gowdy said, "What the liberals and the Democrats want you to believe is, 'Well, but you'll have time to write poetry.' Well, that’s great until you try and buy your grandkid a birthday present or you try and pay the heating bill."
You might read that and wonder, "Just how dumb do they think people are?" If you're, say, a 63-year-old who has enough savings to retire but doesn't want to wait until you're 65 and can get Medicare, the fact that you can now buy private insurance doesn't mean you've failed to "get on the ladder of life." Nobody is going to say, "Wait—I can buy insurance now, even though I once had cancer? Woo-hoo, no more work for me, ever!"
But to be honest, I'm a little torn about how far to go in interpreting the arguments Republicans are making. On one hand, it's obvious that they are saying what they are because they feel obligated to take any and every opportunity to cry that Obamacare is destroying America, and they'll do that no matter what the facts are. If the CBO report had said that the ACA had no effect at all on job lock, they'd probably be arguing exactly the opposite of what they are now, that it was diminishing Americans' freedom by keeping them in jobs they hate.
On the other hand, it's hard to say that at the moment they're not being candid about what they really believe. Job lock never really bothered them before, and I think that's because it's a case of the market diminishing people's freedom. Conservatives get very upset when the government diminishes freedom, but if the market does it, well them's the breaks. If you got screwed by market forces, then that just means you're a loser, and they're the party of winners. David Atkins may go a little far here, but he's right to point to a basic difference in how people of different ideologies view what it means to be human:
It is not an inaccurate or extreme statement to declare that ideological Republicans do not understand what it means to be human. They view human beings as economic units to be plugged at their lowest possible price into a maximally efficient market that provides the greatest possible returns on investment to the wealthy few, with any resulting human resentment and misery dulled by humility before a pleasure-fearing angry God promising rewards to the obedient in the hereafter. It is a dark, meager, shriveled and cramped vision of humanity.
I'd modify that to say that while most conservatives may view lives devoted to non-money-making endeavors as frivolous, it's only when certain people take advantage of the kind of freedom we're talking about that they get genuinely perturbed. They aren't campaigning for a higher estate tax so the Paris Hiltons of the world will be forced to get jobs and contribute meaningfully to society instead of laying about all day spending their forebears' money. It's the idea of someone of modest means having the ability to organize their lives to work less that they find morally intolerable.
But conservatives should be quite satisfied with the way the American economy is organized, particularly compared to our peer nations. Unions are a desiccated husk of what they once were, leaving workers with little or no power. Wages are stagnant and benefits are shrinking, while corporate profits and the share of wealth held by those at the top are at or near all-time highs. Our safety net is, by international standards, quite meager. The United States is the only advanced industrialized democracy that does not mandate by law that everyone get paid vacation. If you're lucky enough to have it, chances are you get two weeks at most. The European Union, by contrast, requires four weeks of paid vacation for all workers, and some countries in Europe go beyond even that.
In other words, this is the economy conservatives built. And yet when just one area of uncertainty is removed for ordinary people—the fear that you'll lose your health coverage if you leave your job or work fewer hours—they begin delivering lectures to the lesser folk about "the dignity of work." This is from a bunch of rich white guys who spend their days hobnobbing with other rich white guys. What I'd suggest is that they ask the people who clean their toilets about how much dignity and fulfillment they derive from their work, and then ask them whether they'd feel less dignified if they knew they could leave their jobs and still get health coverage. For a group of people who spend so much time talking about "economic freedom," conservatives seem awfully hesitant to let to many people taste it.
In the real economy—not the economy of a Republican congressman's imagining, where the only perspective that matters is that of the guy in the corner office, but the real economy—bosses are sometimes kind and sometimes beastly, compensation is sometimes fair and sometimes stingy, and for most people, work is the thing you do so you can carve out a little bit of time to do the things you'd rather be doing. It would be a wonderful world if everyone drew limitless fulfillment, engagement, and purpose from their work. But this is not that world.
Unfortunately, government can't make everyone love their jobs so much they leap out of bed in the morning. But what it can do is stop the gross injustices, keep the ruthless from harming the helpless, soften the market's cruelties and give people at least a chance to reach the kind of lives they want. Is that too much to ask?
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