Republicans Demonize Empowered Workers — Again

republicans health care

Predictably, Fox News distorted this week’s Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report showing that the Affordable Health Care Act (ACA) would reduce the workforce by 2.5 million people. However Fox wasn’t alone in that distortion. Originally reports across the media spectrum (including in The New York Times) misreported the CBO’s study saying instead that the ACA would eliminate 2.5 million jobs.

The distinction between “lost jobs” and “reduced workforce” is important. Douglas Elmendorf, the C.B.O. budget director explained its significance when he testified before the House Budget Committee just after the report’s release. He said:

“The reason that we don’t use the term ‘lost jobs’ is because there is a critical difference between people who would like to work and can’t find a job — or have a job that was lost for reasons beyond their control — and people who choose not to work. If someone comes up to you and says, ‘Well the boss says I’m being laid off because we don’t have enough business to pay me,’ that person feels bad about that and we sympathize with them for having lost their job. If someone says, ‘I decided to retire or stay home and spend more time with my family or spend more time doing my hobby,’ they don’t feel bad about it — they feel good about it. And we don’t sympathize. We say congratulations. And we don’t say they’ve lost their job. We’ve say they’ve chosen to leave their job.”

If, as Elmendorf says, the ACA clearly widens workers’ choices about employment, time devoted to family, and when to retire, what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with opening doors for entrepreneurs who want to quit their old jobs to start businesses of their own, but whose ambition was impeded by the old health care system?

In addition, it seems undeniable that according to the law of supply and demand, the reduced number of applicants for jobs in a shrunken workforce would exert an upward pressure on wages. This is sounding better all the time.

The clarified understanding of the CBO report also presents Republican opponents of Obamacare with a conundrum. After all “freedom,” “family values,” “entrepreneurship,” and “market law” are all championed by the GOP. They have also specifically advocated reducing “job lock.” That’s when employees find it impossible to quit jobs because leaving would mean losing benefits like health care.

Formerly job lock was a concern for the GOP. For example, in May 2009, Representative Paul Ryan (R-W) said: “[The] key question that ought to be addressed in any healthcare reform legislation is, are we going to continue job-lock or are we going to allow individuals more choice and portability to fit the 21st century workforce?”

Now, however, Ryan and the Republicans have changed their tune. They’re evidently against “more choice and portability.”

Instead, having realized that Obamacare will not eliminate jobs, but increase worker freedom to change jobs or leave the workforce altogether, GOP spokespersons have now readopted their familiar tack of demonizing empowered workers and the poor.

So mothers and fathers leaving coveted jobs at McDonald’s or as greeters in Wal-Mart to spend more time with their families are now characterized as slackers and lazy. According to Ryan, they’ve lost respect for “the dignity of work.” They are now ranked among Republicans’ favorite target, the undeserving poor.

By the way, it’s ironic that the Republicans (and Ryan in particular) should now present themselves as defenders of labor’s dignity, especially after they’ve done so much to undermine its last vestiges. As Michael Hiltzik, Pulitzer Prize-winning business columnist for The Los Angeles Times has put it: “Ryan is opposed to raising the minimum wage, surely a path to dignity at work. His 2011 budget proposal would have cut $99 million from the budget for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Republicans have for years waged a battle to eviscerate the National Labor Relations Board, which protects employee organizing rights. Ryan certainly didn’t stand up for extending unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless, which helps keep them in the job market . . .”

Don’t let the Republicans – or their Fox News minions – fool you on this one. Despite its flaws, the ACA is a step in the right direction for working people.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

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