On Tuesday, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a new report on Obamacare’s impact on the economy that ignited an enormous amount of controversy.
The firestorm centered on CBO’s projection that the Affordable Care Act would reduce the hours we work by the equivalent of 2.5 million full-time jobs by 2024. Conservatives were elated, claiming that the report supported their belief that Obamacare is a “job killer.” Liberals lamented the media’s shoddy reporting of the CBO projections, arguing that they were mostly good news. CBO projected that the law will reduce the deficit, increase consumer demand and cut unemployment.
Most of the dispute over what the report actually says was informed by partisanship or ideology. But the substance of it came down to a simple sentence: The CBO expects a reduction in hours worked “almost entirely because workers will choose to supply less labor — given the new taxes and other incentives they will face and the financial benefits some will receive.”
In other words, Obamacare won’t reduce the number of jobs in the American economy. Rather, some people will be choose to reduce the hours they work or stop working altogether as a result of the law. Economist Dean Baker, calling this projected effect “a feature not a bug,” notes that this should lead to higher wages as employers will have to compete for fewer workers.
But the story was captured best by Paul Krugman, who wrote that “the report is about the choices workers can make when they are no longer tethered to an employer because of health benefits.” One of the goals of the Affordable Care Act was to lessen Americans’ reliance on their bosses for affordable health insurance. People stuck in dead-end jobs that they hate, those who want to take time off to spend with their kids, those approaching retirement age who aren’t yet eligible for Medicare and those who want to quit their job to start a business now have a real choice.
A dominant conservative narrative about government is that it saps our freedom. That’s certainly true in some areas: We do lead the world in incarcerating our citizens. But it’s also true that good government can increase our personal choices and make us more free – freer to pursue our own individual paths.
That idea is reflected in the CBO report, and it’s also true of a host of other public programs. Subsidized loans can free a poor student to pursue a higher education he or she couldn’t otherwise afford. There are programs that help people start new businesses or buy homes they otherwise couldn’t finance, others offer them new job skills. Even if you’re dirt poor, you can still get help to kick a drug addiction. You can go to the library and read a book or search job listings on the Internet. Public transportation gives people without the means to own a car or take taxis the freedom to get around town. Publicly funded research gives scientists the ability to pursue research that isn’t immediately profitable. All of these things — and many more — give people real choices they wouldn’t otherwise have.
The citizens of most wealthy democracies don’t share our ambivalence toward government, in part because they understand this reality. Unfortunately, it’s largely missing from our debates over the role of government in American society.