Obamacare and the Right-Wing Fight for Indentured Servitude

While the ACA is flawed in some respects, the CBO report pointed to one of its strongest features: by at least partially uncoupling health care coverage from employment, it is unfettering workers from jobs they would prefer to leave.
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As Media Matters and other outlets noted last week, right-wing commentators drastically misrepresented a CBO report's findings about the Affordable Care Act. Fox News, Washington Post conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin, and many other conservative pundits misstated the report's optimistic conclusion -- that the equivalent of up to 2.5 million workers would eventually leave the workforce -- as instead claiming that 2.5 million jobs would be lost as a result of the law

But if these conservatives "misread" the report, as the Media Matters headline puts it, it was a telling error. While the ACA is flawed in some respects, the CBO report pointed to one of its strongest features: by at least partially uncoupling health care coverage from employment, it is unfettering workers from jobs they would prefer to leave. (The 2.5 million figure was also misinterpreted; the CBO discussed full-time equivalent workers, since some people will stay in the workforce but work fewer hours.)

What will these working people do with their newfound time? Some will retire. Others will presumably start their own businesses, raise their children, go back to school, or do any number of other things.

Whatever their new pursuits, they weren't free to pursue them before, especially if they were older or if they (or a family member) had a health problem. Their need for health insurance had forced them into a kind of indentured servitude, as a result of our country's unique (and uniquely problematic) employer-based health insurance system.

The CBO projected that 2.0 million people will take advantage of this new opportunity. There are several reasons why this should be celebrated. First, it is (to use a popular conservative phrase) a "blow for freedom." A liberty-loving people should celebrate any development which gives its citizens greater freedom over their own lives. This nation rejected indentured servitude in its early days, and we should reject it again today.

Secondly, any development which will reduce the number of hours worked by 1.5 to 2.0 percent -- "almost entirely because workers will choose to supply less labor," in the CBO's words -- will increase the demand for available workers. To the extent that this change affects the larger workforce (as Michael Hiltzik's excellent analysis notes, that effect will be "muted" for most people), it would presumably be to drive up demand and therefore wages.

Could that be part of the Right's real problem with this report? That movement, which still uses the name "conservative," would be better described nowadays as "pro-corporatism." The party it supports, the GOP, is the "corporate agenda party." And if there's one thing these assembled forces routinely and consistently support, it's the return of "indentured servitude."

Few programs have done more to free Americans from that servitude than Social Security. It has allowed countless millions to retire with dignity, rather than sell apples on the street to survive. It has lifted millions of survivors and disabled Americans from poverty. And what does the Right think about Social Security?

They're against it.

Same goes for its sister program, Medicare, which they would reduce to a voucher system -- a system that can only be distinguished from the "Obamacare" they despise by the relative weakness of its subsidies, and the fact that it's much worse than the system now in place.

What about raising the minimum wage? It, too, would strengthen wages for the middle class. It would provide greater opportunities for social mobility among lower-income Americans. What does the right think about that idea?

They're against it.

College aid, so that Americans at all income levels have access to wage-increasing educational opportunities?

They're against it.

Banking reform, so that Americans encumbered by underwater loans can escape the bankers that cheated them and regain control of their own lives?

They're against it.

Whether it's a matter of political philosophy, or just a slavish devotion to the views pressed on them by think tankers, pundits, and the corporations who finance them, there's an underlying pattern to these policy positions. Each robs individuals and families of their freedoms: the freedom to choose their jobs, negotiate their salaries, or decide how they want to live.

Why, it's almost as if a movement which proclaims its devotion to individual freedom is actually promoting indentured servitude to its corporate backers.

Meanwhile, ACA supporters are celebrating articles like this one, which was headlined "They quit their jobs thanks to health care law." They should. That's a feature, not a bug, in this law. But the law's backers should not lose sight of the need to address that law's greatest flaw: while cost increases are slowing down, health insurance is very costly in this country. Even with subsidies, one of the couples profiled in the article will pay nearly $6,000 per year in premiums (for insurance which will still leave them with high out-of-pocket costs, relative to government-sponsored plans, should they need significant care).

In other words, we've cut some of the cords of indentured servitude. But the cost of our private-sector healthcare system is still an impediment to personal freedom. That's not how the Right will tell it, of course. But that's how it is.

In a telling phrase, the Post's Ms. Rubin laments those who would "spend a whole lot, tax a whole lot, make the cost of labor a whole lot more expensive, regulate insurance a whole lot more and create a lot of havoc."

A world with more and better-paying jobs, rebuilt roads and bridges, and insurance companies that are less able to gouge their customers won't sound like "havoc" to most Americans. In fact, that undoubtedly sounds pretty good to most people.

But then, most people don't believe in indentured servitude, either.

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