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“Misrepresenting The Facts”: Obamacare Critics Still Tell Just One Side Of The Jobs Story

The economics profession is famous for its balance—as the joke goes, we always need more hands to express all the caveats to our conclusions. (“On the other hand … and on the other hand … and on the other hand…”) That is why arguments about last week’s report from the Congressional Budget Office have become so frustrating, even when accomplished scholars are the ones doing the arguing. Instead of addressing a subtle and complicated issue with (at least!) two sides, the law’s critics keep turning it into a single-sided moral diatribe about the work ethic and the supposed damage Obamacare is doing to it. A perfect illustration is a recent New York Times Economix column by Casey Mulligan, a University of Chicago economist whose own research has become part of the debate — and who, in the course of dismissing the Affordable Care Act’s virtues, took a swipe at me, as well.

The genesis of Mulligan’s article is the surprisingly famous appendix to that CBO report—the part where the agency predicts that the Affordable Care Act will be associated with a reduction in the workforce of the U.S. The bottom line of that report is that the ACA will result in 2 million fewer jobs by 2017.  And, as is typical of the generally excellent CBO studies, this report is careful in describing the genesis of this conclusion.  The CBO highlights that there are essentially two different sources of the reduced labor supply. The first is voluntary job leaving by those who have been “locked” into their jobs by fear of losing health insurance.  Some of these individuals would happily turn down their wage to be retired or caring for children, but were previously unable to do so because they had no other insurance options; now they are able to pursue those preferred approaches.  The second is those who are deterred from working by higher marginal tax rates.  In particular, since the Affordable Care Act’s financial assistance phases out as income rises, the incentive to work more also declines at higher incomes. In other words, the law’s financial assistance is an implicit tax on earnings—and the tax gets higher as people earn more.

Mulligan’s article, and a number of his recent papers, are focused on the effects of these tax rates.  He performs detailed computations which show that, for some individuals, that the tax rates can be quite high. In his recent post, Mulligan implies that these high tax rates are the reason for the CBO conclusions on reduced labor market participation. He dismisses the job lock effects as “a completely different issue…and far less prevalent.” He even cites the sentence on page 119-120 which ends with a footnote citing his work as evidence that CBO’s report is focused on high tax rates.

But Mulligan doesn’t mention that, in the very next paragraph, CBO dismisses his argument. According to the report, his suggested effect doesn’t impact labor supply, but rather health insurance offering (which they model elsewhere). Mulligan claims that CBO was “aware of instances of 100% tax rates,” which may be true, but the entire Appendix doesn’t mention this fact even once. It is not surprising that, unlike Mulligan, CBO economists did not harp on examples of 100% tax rates. They are uninterested in calculations that highlight extreme cases. They are more interested in modeling the overall impact on the workforce. Showing that tax rates might be high for a small number of workers is not as important as assessing what happens to aggregate labor supply.

More important, though, is Mulligan’s casual dismissal of the other reason why the labor market is shrinking, which was highlighted by a broad array of analysts. The CBO explicitly states that at least some of the labor supply reduction that they measure is from loosening “job lock,” and they never say anything which would lead the reader to conclude that job lock concerns are “far less prevalent” as an issue. That is simply Mulligan’s editorializing with no substantive basis.

Moreover, the CBO also includes a lengthy discussion of the potential positive productivity effects of loosening job lock.  Since the CBO is cautious, and there is no consensus evidence on the productivity effects of job lock, they do not provide any estimates of the countervailing benefits of loosening job lock in their labor supply modeling.  But at least they don’t ignore the topic, as Mulligan’s article would lead you to believe.

Mulligan says that the Obama administration “spun the high marginal tax rates as a policy achievement,” when, in fact, the post he cites is about job lock—not implicit marginal tax rates. Mulligan then goes on to misuse a quote of mine (as well as of Paul Krugman’s) that implies that we applaud the reduction in labor supply due to high marginal tax rates.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  My quote came from a Los Angeles Times opinion column. In it, I laid out clearly both of the effects documented by the CBO.  Since this was, after all, an opinion piece, I also offered my view that—on balance—the CBO report was positive, because the benefits of the first labor supply effect (ending job lock) would be larger than the costs of the second (the implicit marginal rates).  But I don’t claim that I know for sure that this is the case.  Krugman’s quote came as part of a series of posts he wrote, describing the economics case for allowing those who are better off not working to leave their jobs rather than to continue to work just to get health insurance. Krugman also gave a more balanced view, acknowledging the downside of implicit marginal tax rates but arguing that, in the end, the upsides were greater.

Mulligan—like so many of the law’s critics, in and out of the economics profession—gives a more one-sided view. He talks only about the marginal tax rates. A reader who relied exclusively on his column would have no idea the CBO cited multiple reasons for the shrinking workforce—and that some of these reasons were utterly defensible.  Ironically, while making a surprisingly moral case against examples of 100% tax rates, he ignores the moral case for leveling the playing field by breaking the link between work and insurance, so that workers are not chained to jobs where the value of their compensation is well below their disutility of working.

The Affordable Care Act, like any major reform, has its virtues and its flaws. The best economists, like the best public officials, are the ones who deal with both.


By: Jonathan Gruber, The New Republic, February 13, 2014

February 17, 2014 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Obamacare | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Liberals, Conservatives, And The Meaning Of Work”: Ideological Republicans Do Not Understand What It Means To Be Human

It appears that those who talk so much about “economic freedom” aren’t too happy when ordinary people have more choices.

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 too 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?


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, February 10, 2014

February 11, 2014 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Economic Inequality | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Something To Celebrate”: Affordable Care Act Gives Workers Freedom, Republicans Enraged

Since I wrote about postal banking this morning, I’ve decided to continue the day’s shameless, lowest-common-denominator clickbaiting by talking about a new Congressional Budget Office report and the Affordable Care Act. Hang on to your hats.

With all the hype of a new Beyonce album, the CBO dropped its latest report on government finances and other related topics, which includes the news that the deficit has dropped to its lowest level since Barack Obama took office. This may prove inconvenient for Republicans still invested in fomenting deficit panic, but they’ll be helped by the fact that most Americans actually believe the deficit has gone up in the Obama years. According to a new poll from the Huffington Post, not only do 54 percent of people think so, but 85 percent (!) of Republicans think so.

In any case, the part of the CBO’s report that’s getting more attention is their projection that as a result of the ACA, the labor force will be reduced by 2 million in 2017, rising to 2.5 million in 2024. Unsurprisingly, Republicans rushed to the trumpets to shout that “Obamacare is going to cost 2.5 million jobs!!!” even though that’s not actually what the CBO said. Even news organizations who ought to know better made the mistake; earlier today, a headline at the Washington Post‘s web site read, “CBO: Health Law to Mean 2 Million Fewer Jobs” (it has since been corrected to read, “CBO: Health Law to Mean 2 Million Fewer Workers”).

The important thing to understand about the reduction in the labor force is that this is exactly what was supposed to happen. When you eliminate “job lock,” where people who’d like to leave their jobs can’t because if they do they won’t have health insurance, a certain number of people are going to take advantage of their newfound mobility. In some cases you might be able to construe it as a loss to the economy, say if a productive full-time worker cuts back to part time because she can. But in many cases it’s something to celebrate: an American exercising their freedom.

Imagine, for instance, a couple. The wife is a lawyer in private practice; the husband is an accountant at a large firm. Since she’s a cancer survivor, he has stayed at his job for the health insurance it provides, because if he didn’t they wouldn’t have been able to get coverage, what with her pre-existing condition. But now, he can make a different choice. And it happens that her business is doing pretty well, and he’d rather stay home with the kids and work on his novel than be an accountant. So he has the freedom to quit his job, and they can still get covered. When he does so, he’s no longer in the labor force. But that doesn’t mean there’s one fewer job in the economy. His firm will just hire someone else.

That isn’t to say there will be zero net loss to the economy; without his income, the couple will probably spend less. But their children may also grow up happier and more well-adjusted, and who knows, he might write the next great young-adult dystopian fight-to-the-death trilogy with the extra time he has between 9 and 3 every day. These are good things.

That’s just one kind of person who leaves the labor force because of the ACA; there will also be lots of people who leave jobs to start their own businesses, and some who decide to retire early because now they can. If people are making those decisions freely—just like people have the freedom to do in every other advanced economy in the world—it would be crazy to think of it as something to be lamented.


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, February 4, 2014

February 7, 2014 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Freedom, Republicans | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Eight Months Until The End Of Job Lock”: A Reminder About One Of The Best Things Obamacare Does

For years, even before Barack Obama was elected, one of the many complaints liberals (mostly) had about the current employer-based health insurance system was “job lock”—if you have insurance at your job, particularly if you or someone in your family has health issues, then you’re going to be hesitant to leave that job. You won’t start your own business, or join somebody else’s struggling startup (unless they provide insurance), and this constrains people’s opportunities and dampens the country’s entrepreneurial spirit.

That this occurs is intuitively obvious—you probably know someone who has experienced it, or have experienced it yourself. And today there’s an article in that pro-Democrat hippie rag The Wall Street Journal entitled “Will Health-Care Law Beget Entrepreneurs?” Amid the worrying about the implementation of Obamacare in January, and the quite reasonable concern that the news could be filled with stories of confusion, missteps, and dirtbags like that Papa John’s guy cutting employees’ hours rather than give them insurance, to avoid the horror of increasing the cost of a pizza by a dime,11This is important: when you hear a story about an employer who cut his employees’ hours so he wouldn’t have to abide by the law, what you’re reading about is a jerk who doesn’t want to offer his employees insurance, not some inevitable consequence of the law. That’s a choice he makes. And don’t forget too that the employer mandate only applies to companies with 50 or more employers, and 96 percent of them already offer health insurance, even without a mandate. it’s a reminder that there will probably be lots of stories like this one in the news too, stories about people whose lives have been changed for the better by the fact that Americans will have something they’ve never had before: health security.

So what kind of effect could the elimination of job lock have on the economy? That’s tough to say. The study referred to in the WSJ article finds that people are much more likely to start a business if they get their health insurance from their spouse’s job than if they get it from their own job; in the former case you’d still have insurance if you started a business, while in the latter case you’d lose it. In addition, and this is particularly interesting, even though you might think of 65-year-olds as looking forward to days of golf and eating dinner at 4 p.m., a large number of people seem to start businesses pretty much the minute they become eligible for Medicare. While it’s hard to get insurance in the current private market if you’re 44, it’s basically impossible if you’re 64.

So it seems that the fact that after January, job lock will be history means that more businesses will be started. How many more? Well, we don’t know yet, and it could depend in part on how affordable the insurance you can get through the exchanges is compared to what people are getting from their employers. And it will be hard to measure precisely how much more economic activity is generated by businesses that wouldn’t have otherwise been started. Obviously, some will succeed and more will fail.

Nevertheless, beyond additions to GDP, there’s something psychological that shouldn’t be discounted, touchy-feely though it might be. The end of job lock means the end of a certain kind of fear that all of us under the age of 65 live with to one degree or another. It’s the fear that leaving a job, voluntarily or otherwise, could become an utter financial calamity if we or one of our loved ones has a health problem. Even if you wish reform hadn’t been grafted on to the existing employer-based system (I’ll raise my hand on that one), ending that fear is huge; it’s one of the best things Obamacare does. Even if it’s difficult to communicate on a bumper sticker.

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, May 9, 2013

May 10, 2013 Posted by | Affordable Care Act | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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